Monday, January 25, 2010
The Book of Eli
I can't talk about The Book of Eli without revealing spoilers. I won't give everything away, but so much of the movie's story is wrapped up in that book he's carrying around that I need to be able to say what it is and what happens to it. I'll leave plenty of other surprises intact, but if you haven't seen it yet and don't want to know about the book, you should stop reading now.
I'm good and torn about this film. I went to it because I wanted to see Denzel Washington kick a lot of butt in a post-apocalyptic Western. The movie completely delivers on that. Mila Kunis' presence isn't exactly a drawback either and I'm usually up for Gary Oldman playing a villain. No disappointments there.
What I had to do some thinking about was the way the story treats the Bible. I'm a pretty liberal Christian and I'm ready to admit that organized Christiandom rightly deserves a lot of the antagonism it gets, but I'm also eager to see its positive aspects discussed. In The Book of Eli, Christianity has been held fully responsible for a global war and the enormous hole it ripped into the ozone layer. As a result, every copy of the Bible has been burned. All but one, of course.
Most characters in the film are too young to even remember the book, but a few older folks like Eli and Carnegie (Oldman) know about it. Carnegie has been searching relentlessly for it, planning to use it in exactly the way it's been used too often throughout history: to control people. Eli wants to share it with those he feels need to hear its message, but is violently protective of it against people like Carnegie and his men.
Eli's journey is mostly about how his relationship to the book changes. He begins the movie as a sort of Knight Templar, dedicated to protecting the holy artifact he holds. Everything else is secondary to that goal, regardless of who Eli might encounter, what their troubles are, or how much Eli is capable of helping them. By the end of the story, Eli questions that approach. He realizes that he's been so focused on the physical book that he's forgotten the message inside it. It's a lesson that a lot of Christians could use reminding about.
What the movie doesn’t do so well though is talk about who does or doesn’t “deserve” to hear the Bible’s message. Carnegie obviously doesn’t because he wants to control it. Eli somehow does. At the end of the film, the book is stored away, presumably until people are ready to hear it again, but who makes that call? Why do they get to? With whom will they share it? The film doesn’t try to answer those questions though they’re important ones and it has no problem asking them.
Another significant question the movie ignores the answer to is what exactly is the message of the Bible that makes it so important to preserve? Eli seems to get it by the end, but no one else does. So when the book finishes the movie on the shelf next to Shakespeare, the Torah, and the Koran (none of which we have any reason to believe were also intentionally destroyed after the war), it looks like more of a museum curiosity than a vital message that our hero’s had any good reason to spend the last two hours defending. Putting theology aside, that’s just poor drama.
Three out of five giant knives