The Book of Eli starts with a man walking through a bleak and colorless post-apocalyptic landscape. He has a backpack, a machete, and purpose. It is a quest of sorts; Eli (Denzel Washington) is carrying a book, protecting it, and “going West.” It’s not clear at first what the book is, who the wanderer is or where he’s going. The tale is hugely mythological and evokes images from Dante’s Inferno or whatever tale of wanderers you might be most familiar with.
On his travels, he encounters good men and bad. Mostly bad.
He finds his way to a budding town ruled by Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who has spent a long time and a lot of resources looking for a book. It just so happens that Eli is carrying the book Carnegie is looking for. Carnegie tries to manipulate and seduce Eli to stay and share the book, but Eli respectfully declines. This is where the hunt-and-seek part of the story begins. Eli happens to befriend Solara (Mila Kunis), the daughter of Claudia (Jennifer Beals) who is Carnegie’s concubine, for lack of a better word. When Eli leaves the town, Solara follows him.
Now, this is all very archetypical, so there is really no point in discussing the presence of certain conventions and clichés since that’s the whole point here. It’s a myth arc and the approach to the story fits.
There’s a great consistency in the visual aspects of the movie. Whatever happened is thirty years in the past and the survivors who remember what the world looked like before are few and far between. Eli and Carnegie are both of that generation and they suffer the unavoidable “paradise lost” emotions that that engenders. They remember, and in part that is what this whole movie is about. The book itself is a symbol of knowledge and pre-apocalypse times.
All vegetation has died, there is nothing green in this world. Whatever canned goods there were have been depleted over time and people are resorting to eating the other white meat, each other. That means this bleak future is a free-for-all and no one is safe.
Eli can handle himself, though. He’s a survivor and a fighter and a true believer who really does think he is on a mission, and that there is someone watching over him.
I like the look and feel of this dystopic future and I am frankly surprised at the stellar quality of the cast. Gary Oldman is suitably villainous, but still manages to inject enough depth into his character to make him interesting. Even bit-parts like The Engineer (Tom Waits), George (Michael Gambon) and Lombardi (Malcolm McDowell) are cast in a way that gives this unexpected weight and substance.
All that being said, I’m afraid this movie is probably not going to stay with you for very long. It ends on an oddly hopeful note, but nothing is really resolved and there are plenty of pitfalls on the way there, where it resorts to simple action-movie clichés. There’s a surprisingly hollow knell at the core of the whole premise that niggles at the viewer and I can’t really put my finger on what it is.
To be fair it’s competing with old favorites in the same genre, like Mad Max (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Hardware (1990) and, more recently, The Road (2009). It is most definitely worth watching, though, and the opening sequence sets the atmosphere of the whole movie. Just keep that in mind and you’ll see what I mean.