THE BOOK OF ELI is a laughably earnest exploration of religion in the decline and fall of civilization. It also wants to explore the way religion can also uplift a civilization, or at least members of it, but it evinces a theology of such a violent and disturbing nature that the advantages of religion are anything but self-evident.
It’s 30 years after the apocalypse, and the world has become a grim place indeed. Dog-eat-dog in many and not necessarily metaphorical ways. In this wilderness wanders the eponymous Eli (Denzel Washington) and the equally eponymous book (Holy Bible, King James version). After the war that ended civilization, and civility, such books were burned, the survivors deciding that religion was not just the opiate of the masses, but also the weapon of mass destruction behind the ones that tore a hole in the sky and reduced cities to rubble. Eli is heading west, with wet naps, an MP3 player, and mission from someone that, for the purposes of this film, is the supreme deity. All this unfolds in painfully doled out dribbles, as though letting the audience in on the back story would ruin the presentation. Aside from not liking cats, having a soft spot for rats, and meekly bowing his head before meals and after slaughtering those who get in his way, Eli is never really defined except by his singular mission.
Though the population has been substantially reduced, Eli encounters the usual stock characters during his walk west. The roving gangs on motorcycles preying on those foolhardy enough to push their solitary grocery carts along highways, the townsfolk cowering under the thumb of the local war lord, the nubile town gal (Mila Kunis) who, against all odds, has good teeth and shiny hair in a world where beauty products are all but gone, and the megalomaniac war lord himself. Here he’s Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman (in THINGS TO COME it was The Boss and he was played by Ralph Richardson for those keeping track), and this one has the bright idea that religion might come in handy to keep the proletariats in his town even more firmly under his thumb. Of all the savage towns in the savage desert that Eli could have wandered into, it had to be Carnegie’s. The deity on high who has sent Eli on his mission works in mysterious ways that become more mysterious, and more blood-soaked, as the flick drones on and on and on and on.
It’s a suitably desolate landscape over which Eli wanders, drained of color into sepia tones, not unlike the writing and the performances as a whole. While the film does address such issues as the post-apocalyptic difficulties of personal hygiene and the neurological symptoms that ensue from cannibalism, it is oddly mum on just how religion led to nuclear conflict, or why, decades later, the survivors and their illiterate descendents sport sunglasses that are not only stylish, but are also in pristine condition.
This is a trite blend of so many well-worn concepts of a dystopian future that naming them all would be even more tedious than the film itself. As though acknowledging that on some level, there is a piquant bit of set dressing, as Eli settles in for the night in re-purposed cinema, the ragged poster behind him is for the cult classic, A BOY AND HIS DOG. THE BOOK OF ELI, neither cult, nor classic, was foolish to invite the comparison.