The Book of Eli is vastly more entertaining than The Road isn’t really praise, in the same way that “apocalypse lite” isn’t really an endorsement. The movie’s ruined America looks grim enough, but damned if Denzel Washington doesn’t have the light of the future tucked into his backpack, because… well, because he’s Denzel Washington.
Some 30 years after a devastating war, America is one sorry-ass heap of rubble and despair where predatory savages lord it over less ruthless folk and much of the world is sightless, thanks to the searing light that still pours through the hole in the sky left by that last great war. Unlike the majority of people scratching out a hardscrabble existence in this nasty new world, Eli (Washington) was born “before:” Before “the flash” that stripped away the Earth’s vegetation, before water became more precious than gold, before literacy crept to the top of some list of useless skills no one can read anyway.
Eli — whose Zen calm belies his formidable skill with a blade — is a man with a mission, a pilgrim whose manifest destiny is taking him endlessly west. Unfortunately, he’s forced to make a stopover in a brutal little frontier town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a constant reader whose love of good books belies his lust for a particular good book… the good book, you might even say — and it happens to be in Eli’s backpack. And yes, this is all as obvious as you think: Eli is carrying the last Bible on Earth, and the despotic Carnegie wants it because he knows that when it comes to manipulating the weak, the desperate and the soul sick, no one beats the guy with the word of God at his fingertips.
Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes (Menace II Society) and written by Gary Whitta, The Book of Eli is both derivative (start with Mad Max, Fahrenheit 451 and Walter M. Miller Jr.’s 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz) and silly. The look is great, all desaturated cinematography, ruined landscapes and grimly ironic product placements: Hats off to K-Mart, J. Crew, Motorola and the various other companies that were willing to slap their logos on bits of the movie’s devastated future ruins. But at its core, the movie makes no sense; the minute you start asking questions like “Why doesn’t Carnegie just pull a Joseph Smith and make up his own holy book,” it falls apart.
If action-oriented gloom and doom is your thing, you’d do better to dust off your DVD of The Road Warrior — a dystopian vision of the future that still packs a remarkable punch — than to sit through this portentous nonsense.