A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 447 – The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli – May 21st, 2011

Today we decided that in light of the utter lack of apocalyptic events, we should watch a post-apocalyptic movie. What? It made sense to us. And this was a post-apocalyptic movie we’ve been curious about since it came out. It was one of those movies we saw advertised and talked about going to see and then heard sort of mixed reviews on and we never got the time to go see it and then it was gone. So Andy bought it and I certainly didn’t mind but while I do love a post-apocalyptic wasteland (I might have mentioned that) I’ve got to be in the right mood to watch a movie set in one. But we planned on this and I was in the mood and really? I’m so glad. I’ve got some issues, but overall they aren’t enough to ruin this movie for me. There’s far more positive than negative.

If I recall, this was billed as an action movie, and make no mistake, there is action. There are shoot-outs and explosions and a guy gets shot in the crotch with an arrow. Sure, there’s plenty of action. But it’s got a lot that isn’t action and really, the action is all a means to an end, not the thrust of the movie. The point of it all is Eli’s journey and the power of words and belief and faith in a world that’s lost so much. It’s the society that’s been left after disaster and how they’re struggling. So of course there’s action. The society that’s left is a brutal one. But there’s also a lot of discussion and a lot of scenes of people, Eli in particular, going about their new routines.

Now, this is going to be a difficult movie to review without spoiling it. The ending alone is one of the major reasons I love it and it’s not necessarily what one might expect. But it’s perfect and it speaks to me very nicely. Unfortunately if I explain why it steals a lot of the impact. So I’m going to try but it’s going to be difficult and if you’re planning on ever watching this movie – and I do recommend it – you might want to be aware of that. On the surface this movie might sound relatively simple: A man is traveling through the wasteland that used to be the United States. There’s been some sort of war with disastrous consequences, leaving the atmosphere thinned and the sun seemingly brighter. It’s a harsh world with water a precious commodity and survivors fighting over what little is left. And the man has something. Something important. And when he shows up in a small settlement in the middle of nowhere he finds that the mayor of the settlement wants it. And he doesn’t want to give it up. Not a complicated concept there.

What I love about it is the world building. It’s so simple and so spare. We aren’t told any extraneous details. We don’t need to know everything that led up to the way things are now. We just need to now that the world used to be different and now it is like it is. Through Eli’s attempt to find water and his scavenging of wet-naps and clean boots we learn more about the state of the world than we would if he soliloquised about it. When he gets into town and barters with a local repairman, the Engineer, we learn even more. We get everything in bits and pieces and it works. Along with the washed out and dusty dry landscape and visuals, the bits of background and history really create an absorbing world.

We really learn the point of the movie once Eli reaches town. Before that it’s mostly us and Eli, working to survive in the wasteland. He gets a great introduction, hunting and scavenging and besting a whole crew of hijackers who want to steal his water. It’s very nicely done and Denzel Washington gets some good time to establish Eli as independent and resourceful and dangerous and very isolated. Once in the town we learn more about the other people. We meet the villainous Carnegie, who’s been searching for a particular book that he believes will help him control people. We meet his gang of thugs and we meet the women he has claimed: Claudia and her daughter Solara. And then the movie carries us out of town. There’s some character development here and the potential for action, but the real action happens when Eli won’t do as Carnegie asks and leaves the way he always intended to.

There are some showdowns later on and we meet some cannibals and Solara tries to get Eli to let her go with him and he refuses. It’s all really to show us just how important Eli takes his mission to get his cargo to the right place. And what is the right place? Even he doesn’t know. He’ll find out when he gets there. I don’t think I’m selling this very well but it’s difficult to describe what makes this movie so engaging without giving away important details. He’s a man with a purpose and that purpose is to carry his cargo west. Regardless of obstacles. Regardless of delays. He goes west with his cargo safe in his pack. He claims a voice told him to do this. And there’s a very religious aspect to all of that. But it’s built into the movie from the start and the movie is so otherworldly that it’s not unbelievable. Unfortunately, while the world is built well and Eli’s faith is built well, I felt that the movie fell down a few times when it came to actual character development.

There’s a point where Solara helps Eli and wants to join him and go with him. He leaves her behind after she helps him, saying that the road is too dangerous for her. And I’ve got to wonder, what the hell does he think will happen to her if she’s left there? It’s obvious that she’s helped him out and Carnegie is clearly one nasty piece of work. Eli knows what things happen to women in the world as it is now. He’s witnessed it and Carnegie even tried to use Solara as bait for him. Does he truly think she’s safer there? After betraying Carnegie? Or did he just not want to be inconvenienced? Because leaving her there is a brutal death sentence for her, likely after a number of horrible things that don’t bear listing. He’s ignored horrible things before, walking past and not getting involved so as to be able to keep going. But this is active participation. And I get that part of Eli’s character arc is that he goes from doing nothing but protecting the book to actually heeding its words, but turning a blind eye is one thing where actively staking someone out is another and it frustrated me that it was given less time and thought than when Eli witnesses a couple of strangers being attacked and has to force himself to stay out of it. Solara turns out to be fairly important. So why doesn’t she merit as much care?

And then there’s Solara herself. Whom I liked. Mila Kunis does well with what she’s given for the character but sadly I don’t think it’s quite enough. It’s clear that her life in town with Carnegie is just a prolonged lead up to one or more of his men claiming her. Of course she wants out and of course she wants out with a man who’s shown no interest in her and who can take care of himself in a fight. But she’s given more than that. Not much, but little hints that she has interests outside of protection and safety. Perhaps she even has dreams. But she doesn’t get nearly enough time to show them. So when she turns out to have a fairly large role later on it’s really frustrating. I sympathize with her and want her to make it, but her character arc is a short one.

I think the issue is that the movie invested so much in building the world and the concept and the conceit leading up to the reveal at the end that the characters almost took a back seat. Eli’s mission overshadows almost everything else about him. Same for Carnegie, same for Solara. And that might well be a conscious choice on the part of the writer and/or director, showing us how single-minded these people have had to become to survive in this world. But ultimately I don’t think it quite works, because we’re still expected to like (or hate) these people. Fortunately, the world is rich enough and the details interesting enough and the reveal good enough that I can excuse all that and simply enjoy it.

May 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Book of Eli

May 21, 2011

The Book of Eli

Happy Rapture day everyone! Since the world is going to end today we figured we should watch our movie early (and we’re going to see family.) It’s also only natural that we watch a movie about the apocalypse. A movie about faith and conflict.

I like a movie that doesn’t concern itself too much with answers. Or rather a movie that lets you figure out what’s going on for yourself without explaining it all up front. I remember reading a few luke-warm reviews of this film when it first came out. I’m pretty sure that’s because it was poorly marketed. It was advertised as a sort of post-apocalyptic action movie, and while it does have some very cool action in it that is not what the movie is about, and anybody looking for an adrenaline filled thrill ride is bound to be disappointed. This movie is a deep, soulful and compelling story with a very cool twist to it that just happens to be set in a post apocalyptic world.

I’d say that the world itself is as much a character in the film as Eli or any of the other characters he comes across. That’s established through the lengthy opening as we see Eli wandering the wasteland. He’s a lone walker, traveling the desolate roads after an apocalypse that is never really explained. The pacing is beautiful and deliberate. We see the arid wastes with no water. We see the harsh glare of the sun which necessitates that everybody wear sunglasses when outside during the day. We see the lawless and dangerous bands that prey upon any innocent travellers they come upon. This is a movie that excels at showing instead of telling, which I very much appreciate.

Eli is a consummate survivor, as anybody wandering the Earth in these harsh times would need to be. It’s established early on that he’s more than capable of taking care of himself. He can navigate the empty roads and makes mincemeat of smaller bands of roving hijackers who would kill him for his water (or just to eat him.) It is when he comes across a small town of people who have come together under a single charismatic leader that things start to go wrong for him.

The leader of this town is Carnegie. He is a learned man, obsessed with finding a book. A particular book that he has sent vicious groups of murderers out into the world to find and bring back to him. A book which, it would appear, Eli has in his possession: the last remaining Bible. In this world, you see, every Bible has been destroyed because it has been blamed by some of the survivors of the great war for the conflict that burnt a hole in the sky. Eli is a man of faith who wants to find the right place to bring his precious book to, but Carnegie is an ambitious man who believes that inside the Bible are the words he can use to bend people to his will. To Carnegie the Bible is a weapon of unimaginable power.

It’s an interesting premise for a post-apocalyptic movie. I enjoy the fact that this movie has the courage to ask a lot of uncomfortable questions and doesn’t necessarily try to answer them for us. I am not a religious person, but I can understand the power of words, and that’s part of what this movie is about. It doesn’t try to say that the word of God will save anybody. It doesn’t even say that there is one true faith that people have to live by (which is something that definitely runs counter to my beliefs.) Instead it makes a strong case that religious fervor can be as strong a power for evil as for good. Is there something supernatural going on in the movie? It pretty much leaves that up to the viewer to decide, which again is something I loved.

Earlier this week we watched I Am Legend with a powerful performance by Will Smith as the last man in New York City. Denzel Washington’s performance here as Eli has much in common with that. He has a lot of screen time by his lonesome, which is a huge responsibility for an actor, but he never once loses his intensity. There are moments in this film that are painful in their harsh depiction of this devastating future. Watching Eli as he struggles with his own faith is impressive indeed. Denzel gives him a strong sense of justice, of indomitable spirit, of inner peace. Then he has him confront evils that nobody could expect to overcome. It’s a powerful and touching performance.

Opposite him we have Gary Oldman as Carnegie. As always Oldman completely inhabits his role, and there is probably nobody better suited to portray a man obsessed with an idea. Gary Oldman does obsession so very well. He is intimidating and unstoppable and ruthless in all the right ways to counterbalance the quiet, honest and forthright Eli. It ads just the perfect sense of menace and desperation to the film.

And of course there’s the twist I mentioned. I really wouldn’t want to spoil this movie for anybody, but it is wonderfully crafted, and when you reach the end you want to go back and see it again from the beginning to make sense of it. I hadn’t been expecting that, and it was a rare treat to discover that aspect of the movie.

Tonight was the first time I had seen this movie. I was so very impressed, and I hope that has come across in my review. It is gorgeously filmed, filled with interesting characters and some good tension. I loved the twist and the resolution at the end. It may not be perfect (I know for example that Amanda had a lot of trouble swallowing the premise that there were no intact Bibles remaining in the wastelands, given how many people alive today would rather kill than burn their holy books) but it is a movie that encourages you to think and doesn’t rely on presenting simple answers. It’s right up there amongst my favorite post-apocalyptic movies of all time now.

May 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment