The Book of Eli is substanceless, gimmicky fun. It's not a must-see, nor a must-avoid. It has two great actors, and a few mediocre ones doing adequate work. Ultimately, Eli is about faith — in both the film's essence, and its plot.
The Book of Eli is the latest in a slew of post-apocalypic movies. The world is ungoverned, desert landfill. Murder, cannibalism, rape, and plunder are commonplace. Denzel Washington is Eli, a man simply "headed West." Why? He won't say. Eli saunters through the desert, stopping only when forced (to recharge his iPod, get water, or defend himself). Fortunately he is a heavily armed, ruthlessly efficient killer. Eli reads every day. He stops in a town run by the tyannical and inexplicably powerful Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie is desperately seeking a book — the very same book Eli carries and devotedly reads every day.
Without Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, The Book of Eli would be unwatchable. Denzel's charm is matched only by his ferocity. It's worth mentioning his action sequences have no stand-ins, and are done in single takes from multiple angles (to prepare for the film he trained with several experts, including Dan Inosanto, Bruce Lee's protégé and current authority on Jeet Kune Do). Mila Kunis is surprising as the female tag-along. It's not a breakthrough that people will discuss like Anna Kendrick, but it's a respectable performance high above the wretched Max Payne.
The Book of Eli seems like it would make a great video game. So much of it suits a video game premise: The characters and events are mildly engaging but fairly simple and shallow; there are scenes with intense action; it's set in a threatening, yet alluring landscape; story details are revealed slowly as the plot and character progress on this journey; and most importantly, Eli has a handgun, grenades, a shotgun, and a bad ass machete.
The video game feel comes from its writer, Gary "Gaz" Whitta. Gaz is the former editor-in-chief for PC Gamer magazine, and helped write Duke Nukem Forever, Prey, and Gears of War. It's an interesting departure from films adapted from video games. That IGN has more video interviews for this film than others speaks to this difference.
Surely the bottom line cannot be appealing: To date, Gears of War has sold 6.02 million units ($10 million goes in, $361 million comes out). The Book of Eli cost $80 million to make, and as of January 23, 2010 has grossed $54 million worldwide. Few films reach the $430 million mark, but perhaps $200 million would be enough. Dare we dream of the next film of this kind? Think Terminator 2 meets Resident Evil 4, starring Ben Foster and Liam Neeson.