The Book of Eli (2010)
Allen and Albert Hughes, credited on their movies as the Hughes Brothers, are a pair of black writers, directors and producers that I had high hopes for over the years. Despite some criticisms of their first film, Menace II Society, taking the "hood" movie formula too far, what I saw in them when it came to the movie was a pair of young men that could easily follow in the steps of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola. Their follow-up Dead Presidents had a lot of flaws, but it still had enough raw energy behind it to be encouraging. What they were really doing was making movies that had been popular in Hollywood for awhile, but doing it with a black gaze.
Then they seemed to disappear. Besides directing a few music videos, they didn't return again until 1999, and this time with a documentary called American Pimp, followed two years later with a mediocre horror film, From Hell, starring Johnny Depp and based on the Jack the Ripper case. For the most part they vanished again for almost a decade before making their final film together, The Book of Eli. I had heard of this movie often, and it was in the back of my mind to watch it, but it came out so soon after The Road that I got the two pretty much confused. In fact, until I watched this, I wasn't even aware that it was a Hughes Brothers movie, much less the last the two did together.
30 years after a war devastated the Earth and destroyed the ozone layer, making it dangerous to be outside without eye and skin protection, a mysterious stranger (Denzel Washington) carrying a leather-bound book is moving west. He seems almost supernaturally able to handle attacks from the violent road crews and cannibalistic hijackers that rule most of the wasteland. During his journey he enters an unnamed town ruled by a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). In addition to supplying booze and women, Carnegie hopes to start spreading out and reclaiming other areas of the wasteland and restoring civilization. In order to do so he has had people looking for a specific book he needs for his purposes.
As things go, the stranger happens to have the book he is looking for, as Carnegie finds out from Solara (Mila Kunis), the daughter of his concubine Claudia (Jennifer Beals). The stranger is able to overcome Carnegie's men and leave, and Solara decides to go with him, despite his warnings that road is no place for her. As Carnegie makes a last-ditch attempt to get the book, the stranger starts to realize that his journey may just be coming to its conclusion.
Unless someone finally goes ahead and makes a Fallout movie, this is probably as close to one as there will ever be. Even though it's not stated specifically, the world was destroyed by a nuclear holocaust and, though it's a much shorter timeline, there are raider gangs and towns made of half-destroyed buildings like in the first two games. There are no Ghouls or Super Mutants, but with the heavy filters used it sure looks like Fallout 3 throughout a good portion of the film. It does put the audience in a specific time, place and mood, but for those that played the first three games through to the end it is going to look way too familiar, often to the point of distraction.
The script itself is by science fiction author Gary Whitta, and besides the obvious Fallout feel it deals with trying to restore society and collect artifacts that are somewhat commonplace in the real world in order to do so. Carnegie wants the book because he believes the words within will give him power to drive men to do his will, while Eli (although his name is barely mentioned throughout) doesn't know why he must take the book westward, but only that he must. It becomes rather clear after a bit which book it is, and that has become a major problem that many critics and viewers have with The Book of Eli. With any religious message these days comes immediate knee-jerk reactions that it is propaganda or some underhanded way of slipping in messages. From what I know of Whitta I highly doubt that is what he intended, especially since the supposed supernatural elements in the film could be explained as luck or just the skills picked up from wandering so long. Eli's faith in his mission may make him braver than he would be normally, and the message he received to go on his journey could very well have been engineered by those at his destination.
What the religious aspect does is also make the story seem more profound than it truly is, since we are seeing the culmination of one man's attempts to get something from one place to another - and that is about it. Denzel Washington's acting is solid and Gary Oldman plays a decent villain, as one would expect. He also plays evil in a realistic way - he believes that he is rebuilding society, and feels that his end goal justifies his bad deeds. It's not the moustache-twirling Oldman is known for. Mile Kunis is decent, but unfortunately every time I heard her voice in this, the first thing I thought was, "Shut up, Meg!" I really haven't had that reaction in any other movie I've seen her in, although the only one I really paid attention to was Jupiter Ascending. Also, she was 26 years old when they filmed this, and for some reason they still had her doing naive teenager roles.
The Book of Eli is not a bad post-apocalyptic science fiction tale, but it wants everyone to think that the story has more weight to it than it does. The Road had a lot more substance to it, even if the world in that movie is lot more hopeless. The revelations at the end were ones I already knew about, but even then some of the broader points of the plot should come as no surprise if one reads a lot of similar stories. There are some great action sequences - some of the best the Hughes Brothers have filmed - and it is a better movie for them to go out on than From Hell.
The Book of Eli (2010)
Time: 118 minutes
Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis
Directors: The Hughes Brothers