The Book of Eli ****
Coming just one week after the reputedly brilliant post apocalyptic film The Road (which I didn’t get to see because no cinema anywhere near me was showing it), we have yet another post apocalyptic film hitting cinema screens. Yet, this one comes with rather different credentials. While The Road is among this year’s Oscar contenders, being a drama first and foremost, and one that has been winning rave reviews, The Book of Eli is being sold a more generic action thriller kind of film that does have some potentially Oscar worthy credentials in the form of leads Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman but is unlikely to draw much awards buzz due to the presence of directors The Hughes Brothers, whose last film From Hell received a rather poor reception, at the helm and trailers that make it look like littler more than a mindless, forgettable actioner. So, awards are definitely out of the question here, but does the film manage to deliver as a popcorn movie?
It’s the near future, and America has become a desolate wasteland. Armed with a shotgun, a samurai sword and his wits, Eli (Denzel Washington) arrives in a ramshackle Californian outpost, where the tyrannical Carnegie (Gary Oldman) rules with an iron fist. Eli befriends the beautiful Solara (Mila Kunis), Carnegie’s stepdaughter, and learns of Carnegie’s brutal plans to take control of the region. Eli has a book in his possession that Carnegie is determined to get his hands on, a book that could serve as either the ultimate tool in Carnegie’s quest for power or could be the salvation of mankind. Eli manages to escape the town and Carnegie’s clutches, and Solara follows him. However, Carnegie is still hot on their trail, and Eli must fight his way across the dangerous wastelands, travelling to the shattered ruins of San Francisco and to a climactic showdown. Here Eli must face his destiny – and its consequences for the future of humanity.
The Book of Eli is actually something of a revelation in that there is so much more to it than you would expect given the trailer’s focus on action over anything else. This isn’t to say that the film is a masterpiece because it most certainly isn’t or that it will attract any awards attention because it definitely won’t, style being very much predominant over substance, but there are certainly enough stylistic touches and surprises to make it not only a cut above the average post apocalyptic action thriller but also a very pleasant surprise in its own right. In terms of its visuals, the film looks very stylish, employing a drained colour palette – almost black and white but not quite – with a stark contract between black and white and colour as well as some quite beautiful symbolic imagery and excellent cinematography. The film’s realization of a post apocalyptic American desolated by nuclear warfare may not be wholly original, clearly borrowing from other post apocalyptic movies, but it is still very well done, putting across a huge sense of scale, creating a genuine feeling of despair and perfectly capturing the essence of what a world without hope would be like. From time to time certain stylistic touches do miss the mark, such as the unimaginative use of slow motion in the opening scene, but generally the film is quite impressive when it comes to visuals and it is clear that the Hughes Brothers do have a talent for creating impressive imagery. They also provide some very well shot and executed action sequences which provide some very good thrills but are perhaps the source of one of the things that lets the film down a little. The talent shown in the visuals is not quite reflected in the script, which throughout hints at the potential for something much deeper, the film seemingly aspiring to be much more than it is but not quite managing to do so. Despite strong religious undertones – Eli’s book is the Bible (don’t worry about me spoiling anything, it’s obvious from the start) – and plenty of opportunity for extended character development, none of the film’s themes are explored in any great detail and a number of the characters are not really that fleshed out, just being present and not much more. Nonetheless, though, the script does still have some strengths. Despite the depressing nature of the story, there are some quite humourous moments blended in, providing some light relief without seeming out of place and a late plot twist that completely changes everything we know about the protagonist, turning much of the film’s events on their heads, comes as a genuine, unexpected surprise and is almost worth a star in its own right, giving the film an edge that makes it more than the generic action thriller it could have been. The film is also well acted, even if the cast is a bit uneven. Denzel Washington is fantastic, combining grit, charisma and heartfelt emotion to create a tragic character who is sympathetic and generally well rounded. Gary Oldman hams it up as the villain for the first time since The Fifth Element and while he certainly won’t get any awards for his performance he still makes for a pretty good bad guy. As for the other players, Mila Kunis and Jennifer Beals (as Solara’s mother) are decent if unremarkable, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour are cast very against type as an old couple who have a rather distasteful means of survival, Ray Stevenson and Tom Waits are pretty good in limited roles and there is also a brief appearance by Malcolm McDowell. Overall, The Book of Eli is a film that won’t change your life or your perceptions about religion but it is a cut above many above post apocalyptic thrillers and one that you may take something from after leaving the cinema.
Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)
© BRWC 2010.
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