The Bore of “Eli”

One of the great things about post-apocalyptic films is that they portray a world infinitely new yet infinitely familiar. In this genre, scenes of cities and suburbia are twisted into surreal landscapes that are simultaneously recognizable and unfathomable. Carnivals are overrun by flesh-eating zombies and whole cities become deserted wastelands thinly populated by humans who have lost their humanity. These images, although strange, have become very familiar nowadays – so much so that this vision of the future has become as much a part of history’s canon as the present. A recent slew of post-apocalyptic films have added to the popular notion of the world after “Judgment Day”: there are the stark images of abandoned cars, crumbling buildings, toppled national monuments, all set in a rather bleak color palette. At the forefront is the requisite survivor, the last testament to humanity who must protect our legacy in the face of a dead but hostile world.

“The Book of Eli” is another one of those post-apocalyptic movies. Denzel Washington plays that aforesaid survivor – here, a man bent on a mission to protect the last remaining copy of the Bible with his life. In a world affected by a briefly-alluded-to nuclear war, the film tries to differentiate itself by elevating the usual survival storyline into a “higher purpose”-driven narrative. What results is a muddled movie composed of various shots of people just looking cool – with lots of fighting scenes that look just as cool.

The Hughes Brothers begin “The Book of Eli” with stunning visual images. The colors are deep and haunting, almost verging on looking like a horror movie – which would be a welcome contrast from other post-apocalyptic movies such as “I Am Legend.” However, the film never evolves past its eye candy.

The cinematography and the action sequences are the main reasons to watch this movie. Every steely glance to the camera is captured with style; every action sequence is lovingly plotted out with seamless use of CGI, creating some rather novel shots (one shot includes a swooping camera as it follows a bullet through a wall). Watching this movie is almost like watching a really well-made music video.

With the oddly scripted dialogue, it might as well have been a music video. Eli’s character is mainly comprised of matter-of-fact sentences and choice quotes from the Bible. Solara (played by an alternately impressive and annoyingly bratty Mila Kunis) is also rather one-dimensional. Whereas in other post-apocalyptic films we are made to sympathize with the characters and root for them to survive, Solara and Eli are almost dispensable cardboard cut-outs of characters.

Even the normally gripping Gary Oldman as the Carnegie, the evil ringleader in stealing the Book from Eli, is condemned to a script full of expository babble and awkward attempts at a complex character.  By creating characters that are all business, the audience is never given a reason to care about either one of them. It also misses a chance to give us characters that would help differentiate “The Book of Eli” from the other post-apocalyptic movies, like “Zombieland” did so well in 2009. A few glimpses of humor are thrown out to us, which do land, but the film takes itself so seriously that it almost doesn’t allow you to have fun watching what trailers portrayed as a unique and adrenaline-fueled action movie.

What is most disappointing about “The Book of Eli” is that some of its concepts were great, but failed in execution. The way of life in Carnegie’s city of criminals is intriguing and different, and the emphasis on literacy is a point untouched by the post-apocalyptic films of the more recent past. However, these things get overshadowed in favor of keeping the genre’s usual conventions.

So thank goodness for the action scenes: one particularly entertaining bit including a whole fight filmed in silhouette, another involving a beheading and the accidental kicking of that head throughout the rest of the fight. And thank goodness for the bit characters who are more entertaining in their brief moments of face time than the stars of the film. This list includes Tom Waits as “The Engineer” and Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour as the old couple George and Martha, who have more secrets than their innocent demeanors let on.

“The Book of Eli” does not try to reinvent the wheel, but it does not improve it either. Simply stated, if you want to see people looking cool in some great action sequences, watch it. If you want a movie that has both compelling characters and a compelling story that just happens to take place after the world has ended, look elsewhere.