In the beginning, God said, “Let there be light,” And the Hughes Brothers said, “Excuse me, but let's make it more opaque.”
The Book of Eli, Denzel Washington's end-of-days futuristic western, may on the surface seem to have a religious bent to it. But the more you let the film soak into the system, the film does less hardy proselytizing than harrowing prophesizing. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “Here's to the Bible: the cause of, and solution to, all life's problems.”
But sadly, all the themes and questions brought about throughout the film come spectacularly crashing down in a third-act reveal that is not only preposterous, but punctuated with a laughable conclusion of furthering the mission.
It's really no secret that the “book” in question is the Bible. Eli wants to protect it, driven by voices to bring it “west.” Gary Oldman is Carnegie, the ruler of one of the world's last remaining towns, who has a voluminous library but who seeks said book Eli keeps so close to his vest.
Carnegie's town is one of rampant lawlessness and would not be out of place in any spaghetti western of the '60s and '70s. Women are oppressed sexual objects, men are hearty booze-swilling cretins, quick to violence. But however twisted, the man does understand the need for hope and community, especially in a world where desolation can bring about slow and painful death.
Even Eli himself realizes this early on, as he witnesses a crime and decides to do nothing, repeating to himself that he must stay on course. Eli is the roadside prophet who stumbles upon the town en route to deliver his sacred tome and, of course, runs afoul with the denizens and their leader, leading to a path of righteous fury at the wrong end of Eli's machete, gun and bow and arrow.
Imagine the recently released The Road, with Viggo Mortensen's character being more ass-kick-y. He puts the “thump” in Bible thumping. Throughout, though, it is Denzel who gives us any reason whatsoever to follow Eli. Were it not for his magnetic delivery, his lines would fail to hold their weight. But loners in big commercial movies need demographically appropriate companions, and unfortunately Eli's is in the form of young Solara (played by Mila Kunis). Solara is the youthful charge of Carnegie and rather easily escapes the town to join Eli on his quest. Kunis has demonstrated a decent enough presence in the past, but she is relegated to the role of whiny sidekick, who was apparently born after the apocalypse, but maintains the demeanor of a girl plucked from any modern day shopping mall.
Twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes do their best and restore the promise they demonstrated so early in their career with Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, including a climactic gun battle in which the camera spins in and out of a house on the tail of ammunition fired from both sides. If they can select a script that is as charged as their vision, the potential is boundless.
But even they cannot prop up a pulpit high enough for Eli's final sermon, which is not only implausible, but unintentionally hysterical. It attempts to yank the carpet from under us, but only leaves an irritating sense of rug burn.