For the third time in four months, after “2012” and “The Road,” the end of the world as we now know it is up on the bigscreen, in “The Book of Eli.” An odyssey of a mysterious wanderer who has spent 30 years making his way across desolate post-apocalyptic landscapes in possession of the world’s only remaining Bible, the Hughes Brothers’ first feature in nine years reps a weirdly intriguing mix of “Mad Max,” “The Postman,” “Fahrenheit 451,” Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy and Graham Greene’s novel “The Power and the Glory,” all shot through with an unwavering religious impulse. In all likelihood, this will not be one of star (and producer) Denzel Washington’s bigger grossers, although if Warner Bros. cared to court the normally stay-at-home Christian audience, it would hit a mother lode of positive response.
By now, the trappings of a CGI-enhanced ravaged future have become so familiar that perhaps they need to be given a rest; images of cities reduced to skyscraper skeletons, familiar landmarks laid low, broken highways littered with decaying cars and scattered survivors rummaging and fighting are no longer fresh, putting the burden on filmmakers to come up with some new angles on prospective Earthly ruin.
“The Book of Eli,” with its enterprising journeyman and marauding cannibals, at least initially looks like a futuristic samurai Western featuring a hero with quasi-supernatural (or, as he would put it, God-given) fighting abilities. After Eli (Washington) dispatches a bunch of snaggle-toothed cretins with a blinding display of blade work in the first action scene, the lone survivor asks where he’s going. “West” is his one-word reply, which lands him in a fetid shell of a town that makes Deadwood look like Paris and is presided over by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a man roughly Eli’s age who’s first seen poring over a bio-graphy of Mussolini.
One of the clever conceits of the script by first-timer Gary Whitta is that there are only a handful of people still alive who remember how things were “before”; none of the younger generation knows how to read, and the Bible, specifically, was singled out for destruction after the global cataclysm, a vaguely described event that created “a hole in the sky” and was blamed by some on religion.
In Carnegie lie the seeds of a great villain. Far smarter than the goons he bosses around, he’s an intellectual dictator frustrated by the miserable desert fiefdom he rules by virtue of his knowledge of a water source. For years, he’s been searching for a Bible himself, knowing that, if armed with exclusive possession of the Word, he could attain unquestioned control, although over what remains a puzzlement.
Unfortunately, Whitta and the Hughes Brothers (whose last film was, ironically or not, “From Hell”) veer away from Carnegie’s brainy side to emphasize standard-issue cruelty and sadism, missing an excellent opportunity to weigh humanity’s potential for misuse of scripture against the goodness of its message. After Eli refuses Carnegie’s entreaties to give him the book, and takes down a squad of his nastiest gorillas in the bargain, the two become deadly enemies, but not in the complex and complicit way they could have been.
So the film’s core becomes a fairly standard chase across the wasteland, as Carnegie’s raggedy troops, in patched-together vehicles, pursue Eli and the villain’s errant stepdaughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), who’s evidently the world’s last remaining hottie; with her and the Bible, Eli would seem to have cornered the market in worthwhile rarities. Along the way, the two briefly take refuge in an isolated house occupied by an old couple (Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour) who serve proper tea in china and play music on a Victrola. The mild humor of this interlude suggests that some mordant comic touches would have been welcome throughout the pic, which has a somber tone that suffers a bit from lack of modulation and nuance.
Shooting in New Mexico with the Red digital camera system, Allen and Albert Hughes favor slow, lateral tracking shots and continually fill the big desert skies with clouds moving in the opposite direction as their hero. Color has been drained away to give the picture a parched sepia look, and all hands on the craft and technical side have more than held up their end. The strange and varied electronic score by Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne and Leopold Ross is a welcome departure from the musical norm.
Iconically effective as a single-minded messenger with a mission, Washington’s Eli is ultimately too confined by the man-of-few-words movie norms he’s saddled with. The feeling persists that the character, and the picture, could have been much more interesting had there been just one scene in which Eli, upon arriving at Carnegie’s compound, delights at finally finding a man he can talk with on equal terms. Carnegie, for his part, would share this pleasure during an evening of stimulating conversation, all the while contemplating how best to snatch the King James from his new best friend. A little humanity and trust subsequently betrayed could have gone a long way.
The prevailing approach forces Oldman to hit mostly obvious notes, while Kunis looks awfully fashionable in her artfully assembled raggy outfits. As Carnegie’s blind wife, Jennifer Beals mostly has to suffer at the hands of her abusive spouse.
Without giving it away, it’s safe to say that “The Book of Eli” ends less bleakly than “The Road,” with a cheeky bit of geographic irony, in fact. An uncredited Malcolm McDowell plays a central role in the final minutes.