2009 saw the release of not one, but two post-apocalyptic “road” movies – John Hilcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and the Hughs Brothers’ “Book of Eli”. But, while both films feature grimly determined men hoofing it across the American wasteland en route to potentially better prospects out west, the similarities end there. The Road’s a drama, through and through; a brilliant novel come to life in such heartbreaking fashion as to render the viewer teary-eyed and hopeless by the time it reaches its dour conclusion. Book of Eli, on the other hand, is a jaw-dropping action spectacle, with kick-ass fight sequences, over-the-top performances, and a visual style that can only be described as Mad Max meets 300.While you’ll get no argument from me over which is the better of the two films, there’s a lot to say for replay value.
Guess which flick I’ll be watching again? If you guessed Book of Eli, then give yourself a cookie.
Book of Eli opens on a dark, dead forest, as a camera pans across the body of a recently deceased man. A hairless cat emerges from the bushes and cautiously moves toward the free dinner before a well-camouflaged hunter pins it to the ground with an arrow. The hunter is Eli (Denzel Washington), a lone traveler who has been wandering the countryside for the better part of thirty years, carrying the last known copy of the Holy Bible on a pilgrimage to the west coast. He doesn’t know what he’ll find when he gets there; he only knows it’s what God wants him to do, and, seeing as how he’s protected him from everything from hijackers and outlanders, Eli’s not about to argue with him.
Eli is nearing the end of his journey when he happens upon a small town run by the power-hungry Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who, like Eli, is old enough to remember the world as it used to be. Carnegie also remembers how powerful a tool religion was in keeping society in order, and, for years, he’s been sending out squads of mercenaries to search for a copy of the holy book Eli has in his possession. To Carnegie, the bible represents control over his people, and, ultimately, power over the thousands who’ll flock to him seeking “his” guidance and wisdom. Eli, however, knows what can happen when the “word of God” is perverted by the will of man, especially one as power mad and narcissistic as Carnegie, and would rather see the book destroyed than fall into this enemy’s hands.
Boasting fantastic performances by Washington and Oldman, Book of Eli is a fast-paced, in-your-face action movie first, and clumsy bit of Christian propaganda second. While many were put off by its religious underpinnings, frankly, I wasn’t bothered by them as, to me, the bible simply serves as a plot device that could very well have been replaced by anything from gasoline to the recipe for Buffalo wings. If anything, the message I took away from Book of Eli is the fact that organized religion as a whole is an inherently dangerous concept that people have, and always will, kill and die for, especially when its message is distorted by men. We’re told that the reason for the book’s scarcity is due to the fact that, after the war, survivors burned all of the bibles, holding religion responsible for the end of the world. Washington dispatches countless baddies protecting this last surviving copy, while Carnegie gleefully throws more of his men into the fire in order to obtain it. You see, Carnegie knows all about religion. He was raised with it, and has seen its power over the weak-willed and hopeless. He knows how to use it to bend people to his will. For the most part, it appears as though the Hughes Bros and writer, Gary Whitta, aren’t so much promoting Christianity as they underscoring the importance of faith in general – not just the religious kind, but faith in humanity as well as in oneself. It’s only during the film’s final act, in a twist many will see coming, that the film veers dangerously close to sermonizing, but, even then, it’s done so with the same sense of style and uber-badassery that makes the first two thirds of Book of Eli such a blast.
Warner Brothers presents the film on Blu-ray with a gorgeous 2.39:1 transfer that stands shoulder to shoulder with some of the best presentations I’ve seen. The rendering of fine detail is superb, especially in close-ups and interior shots. The film’s limited color palette (mostly browns, blacks, and earthy tones) is handled by the transfer wonderfully, combining for an image that pops off the screen, while the incredibly immersive 5.1 lossless soundtrack has to be heard to be truly appreciated. There’s one scene in particular in which a house is decimated by a seemingly endless barrage of gunfire and explosives, and the directional effects nearly had me taking cover behind the sofa.
The Blu-ray supplements include the interactive WB Maximum Movie Mode, which offers PiP interview segments and behind-the-scenes snippets, as well as a collection of short featurettes (all presented in HD), including a rather nifty graphic novel-style feature called A Lost Tale: Billy, that tells the origin of Gary Oldman’s Carnegie character. The other featurettes focus on the film’s soundtrack, set design, and performances. A second disc features both a standard definition DVD and Digital Copy version of the film.
Book of Eli is a rousing action/sci-fi film that also happens to be a message movie. I can see how some would be put off by its religious underpinnings, but give it a chance to entertain you on its own terms and you’ll be rewarded by a well-made, well-intentioned post-apocalyptic shoot-em-up that not only features two of the best actors in the business, but is also helmed by one of the most exciting directorial teams working today.