Hughes Brothers #3 – The Book of Eli (2010)

Today, we’re finally entering the home stretch with a look at the Hughes’ deeply flawed, intriguing post-apoc epic…

The Story

The Earth lies charred from some kind of war-related disaster, and what’s left of humanity clumps together in shanty towns held together by barter and violence. Walking west across this wasteland is Eli (Denzel Washington), with a mission to do two things: kick ass and carry mysterious books, and he’s all out of mysterious boo—oh, wait. Eli happens to own the exact book that the warlord Carnegie (Gary Oldman) wants, and so a classic “town of evil vs. wandering battle-monk” scenario kicks into gear.

Spoiler alert, the book is the Bible.

“Thou shalt not get the fuck back up.”

The Production

Eli and his biblical quest began as a gutsy spec script from talented video game writer Gary Whitta (Prey). The boldness of the script helped it gain attention, and it soon fell into the hands of producer Joel Silver, who brought it to the attention of the Hughes Brothers, fresh off an 8-year sabbatical of solo work meant to distinguish their different creative voices. “I didn’t get it right away, my brother did,” says Albert Hughes. “And I said, ‘I don’t know about the religious stuff or the spiritual stuff.’ And then I went to sleep and woke up after a few hours of dreaming about it and thought, ‘Okay, I get it.’”

The Book of Eli premiered on January 15, 2010, and immediately tasted blue, furry death at the hands of James Cameron’s Avatar monster. Getting noticed at all around all that background noise was tough enough, but Eli still managed to turn a small profit, picking up a reported $160m worldwide on an $80m budget, which made it a very sturdy, if not quite mind-blowing, success.

There has rarely been anything cooler in the world than watching Eli hunt for cat meat. 

What Works Like Crazy

We’re all agreed that the apocalypse is not going to be cool, right? I mean, when the shit hits, it’s going to be all mushroom clouds and goat-babies and flies pouring out of people’s elbows. But the Hughes Brothers make the apocalypse look cool. It’s not a happening place to be, exactly, but the Hughes’s exaggerated sets and computer-enhanced skylines lend the proceedings an air of epic awesomeness that works for a film carrying such biblical ambitions. The Book of Eli is like the post-apoc movie the Shaw Brothers Studio never had a chance to make, and Denzel Washington is their Jimmy Wang.

Washington kicks the apocalypse’s ass in Eli and manages to totally sell the near-unsellable: an incorruptible man in a world without laws. So many apocalypse heroes are pragmatists who make choices based on need without much thought for scruples, but Eli is a man of morals who answers to a higher power. In any other hands, that character is a doofus, but Washington ditches that and goes for world-weary and kind. He’s a warrior monk who wants nothing and needs nothing except the direction West. It’s a performance that grounds the film and plays well against Oldman’s big bad.

Looking like Bricktop, after the bomb.

Speaking of Gary Oldman—which we should all be doing, all the time—he does solid work in his role, presenting Carnegie in a way that make him believably frightening, and just a little scary without crossing into a Romeo is Bleeding/The Professional cartoon. Carnegie is a believer in his own way. He could care less about the specifics of what the book has to say, but he respects the power in it, and it’s that tension between belief and practicality that drives the film. Eli and Carnegie are waging a private little war, and it’s not really about the book as much as it’s about the way the world is going to be built. Ironically, it’s Carnegie who wants to build civilizations and Eli who wants to empower the individual, despite the Bible’s insistence and building a church between believers. Unfortunately, that’s only the first of many confusion points in the film’s message.

What Disappoints

Or, to put it more bluntly, what the hell is The Book of Eli getting at? Let’s assume that somebody, at some point, had more in mind than just a boot-tapping action movie and actually wanted the movie to say something. Call me crazy, but that’s what I’m going to assume. I mean, that’s why it’s the Bible and not the goddamned Webster’s Dictionary, right?

Spoilers coming.

Yup. Another apocalypse.

Carnegie describes a mass purging of Bibles after the apocalypse, because people believed that belief in the Bible had resulted in the destruction of the Earth. OK, sounds like a religious war to me, which probably means all the other books are—OH WAIT. When Eli arrives at his destination, all other major religious texts are found and accounted for. Since it’s not likely that a couple of dozen blind warrior-wanderers found their way across the wasteland, I’m going to assume that the Bible was the biggest get, the hardest find. It stands to reason that the Bible took the brunt of the blame and the damage while the other texts skated by, so why exactly are we thrilled that the book survives? The movie never makes a truly convincing argument for why the Bible should be passed on. Fair, there’s the whole “it’s not the book, but it’s what the people do with the book” thing that Carnegie represents, but then again we don’t exactly know enough about the people on Alcatraz to know their intentions. And what happens when someone with bigger guns shows up and takes the book? Retaining the Bible and all the competing texts feels an awful lot like hanging on to the past and failing to move forward, which is a philosophy that pretty much everyone embraces at the end of the film, while poor progressive Carnegie is left to be eaten alive. It sounds to me that, like the stragglers in The Stand, these survivors are doomed to make the same damn mistakes as the people before them.

The whole plot boils down to faith, I guess? Except, if I’m allowed to steal and butcher Monty Python, faith is no way to form a system of government, and that appears to be exactly the plan at the end of the film. Eli’s quest seems to be for nothing, and Mila Kunis (as poor pawn-turned-padawan Solara) ends the movie as the new Eli, literally wandering back the way she came and carrying on a mission that seems questionable at best and outright irresponsible at worst.

Zzzzzzzzz…

To be clear, I’m not advocating censorship or rooting for the destruction of the Bible. I’m only saying that the way the story goes about its business leaves a lot of intriguing and disturbing questions that the movie can’t be bothered to explain or clear up. The Hughes Brothers’ themselves kind of waffled around the issues of their film’s message when asked point blank.

In the movie they state that all the Bibles, and a lot of other religious texts, were burned after the “last great war,” because many people believed that religion was a catalyst for this war. If religion didn’t help the people of Eli’s fictional past, why do you guys as filmmakers think it will help their future?

Albert: You have some very deep, profound psychological questions there! You’re applying logic to something that there is no logic in. That’s part of my struggle. If you apply logic to a faith based religion — any of them — it will slowly start to fall apart. If you apply logic to Star Wars or Lord of The Rings, it will slowly start to fall apart. But if you go into it as a movie experience, as entertainment, [as] a mythology, and you don’t look for the holes, and you go and believe then that’s a different experience. But you’re like me, I can tell by your questions. [Laughs] I can’t even answer that. I can’t answer some things in all of the movies that we’ve made.

Some questions are tough. Ford tough.

Beyond troubling spiritual questions that even the director can’t answer, The Book of Eli wastes a pretty amazing supporting cast in thankless roles. Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, and Malcom McDowell show up to the party with almost nothing to do, and so help me, I forgot Ray Stevenson was even in the film until looking back over the cast list.

Perhaps that’s because the world around the actors is so damn lousy with product placement that there’s hardly room for much else. Even in the apocalypse, at least I know my NAME BRAND truck and my NAME BRAND food will survive! The product placement is so consistent and brazenly fronted through the film—not to mention wildly out of place, considering the premise–that I was constantly reminded of the secretly awesome film Josie and the Pussycats, and when your bad-ass, bleached-out, warworld reminds me of a Tara Reid film, the apocalypse is truly fucking here.

Tara Reid’s Mind Palace

Overall

The Book of Eli is one of the most visually accomplished movies in the Hughes Brothers canon, but it leans too heavily on some shaky spiritual questions and a few outright baffling choices. Crippling product placement distracts from one of Denzel Washington’s best performances, but there’s just enough blood, brawn, and showy violence to keep the viewer from checking out. There’s plenty to like about Washington’s character—although the third act “twist” stretches a little thin to my eyes—but  he’s stuck in a story that feels a little too heavy on faith, not of the Biblical kind, but of the kind that says “as long as it’s really, really cool, the audience will forgive us for pretty much anything.”

The Hughes Brothers Project

2. ???

3. The Book of Eli

4. From Hell

5. Dead Presidents

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