Review Date: July 19, 2010
Released by: Warner Bros.
Release date: June 15, 2010
Codec: VC-1, 1080p
Widescreen 2.4:1 | 16x9: Yes
The western has proven to be one of filmdomís most durable genres. Even when Americaís love affair with the old west died out (probably due to the realization that glorifying the wild west was tantamount to glorifying state-sanctioned genocide), the western is such a pure form of story telling that itís tropes and motifs were successfully transplanted to other genres. Weíve had westerns in space (Avatar
), inner-city westerns (Assault on Precinct 13
) and even horror westerns (From Dusk Till Dawn
). The directors of The Book of Eli
, twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes, take the western and set it in a post-apocalyptic wasteland while applying a comic book aesthetic to the visuals. Cast two of the best actors working today, Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, and you have the ingredient for a minor classic, right? Eh, not so much. While thereís a lot to admire in The Book of Eli
, a shakily founded script and some directorial choices that betray a lack of confidence in the concept knock Eli from potential classic status down to solid B genre territory. Not a bad territory to occupy but still disappointing considering what could have been.
Itís 30 years after the last nuclear war (presumably World War III, but nobody ever directly refers to it as such). Eli (Denzel Washington
) is a wanderer and scavenger in the post-apocalyptic world. He bears the scars of the nuclear fallout and spends his days barely eking out an existence: hunting feral cats for food, fending off hijackers and gathering supplies to barter. So really, heís living Fallout 3 rather than just playing it.
Eli arrives in a cobbled together, yet thriving, town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman
). Carnegieís base of operations, The Orpheum, is a burnt out old theatre (see what they did there?) and it is there that Eliís prowess at fending off thugs looking for a fight impresses the de facto mayor who offers him a job. Carnegie is obsessed with finding a book, a very particular book that he believes will give him the power to rule over the populace with uncontested authority. Eli declines Carnegieís job offer but accepts his hospitality for an evening of warm food and a comfortable bed. Carnegie also tries to ply Eli with Solara (Mila Kunis
) hoping that a night with her would help change his mind. Eli rejects Solara but allows her to spend the night sleeping alone on the floor to put on airs for Carnegie, who has an iron grip on Solaraís mother, Claudia (Jennifer Beals
). The next morning Solara inadvertently reveals to Carnegie that Eli is in possession of the very book Carnegie is after. Carnegie ambushes Eli as heís leaving town but, to nobodyís surprise, Eli is able to escape the ambush with Solara tagging along.
The illiterate Solara is fascinated with Eliís devotion to his book, which is revealed to be a copy of The Bible. Eli tells her about the history of the book; how after the apocalypse people hunted down and destroyed every copy they could find because they blamed the book for the war. Eli claims that a voice told him to head out west where he would find a safe haven for the book. On their way to this nebulous destination, Eli and Solara wind up at the home of a cannibalistic elderly couple. Tracked there by Carnegieís men, a firefight ensues. Carnegie takes Solara and the book and Eli is shot and left for dead. On the way back to town, Solara escapes and steals a car to return to save Eli. The gravely injured Eli refuses to take the time to rest and heal insisting, instead, on completing his quest to get the book to safety. Although no longer in possession of his physical copy, after years of reading it every night, Eli has memorize it word for word. Meanwhile, Carnegie discovers something about Eliís book that renders it completely useless to him, making all his efforts to retrieve it in vain.
The Book of Eli
is really a great title. There are so many ways it can be interpreted: it could refer to Eliís personal code. Or perhaps he fancies himself a new prophet and considers his experience the basis for writing a follow up to the Book of Revelations. The fact screenwriter Gary Whitta made it literally a book (and not just any book but, for many people, THE book) is obvious and heavy handed. The Book of Eli is clearly trying to say something. What, exactly, itís trying to say Iím not too sure of. I really donít buy Carnegieís thesis about the transformative power of The Bible and the power of faith. Instead, I choose to read Eliís overarching themes as the value of knowledge for knowledgeís sake and the sacred nature of books in general. In that interpretation, you could replace The Bible with a cookbook and the plot of Eli would still be as valid. I suppose you could adopt a nihilistic reading, where both Eli and Carnegie are wrong and in the end itís all for nothing, but I find few philosophies as pointless and worthless as nihilism.
Thereís also some heavy-handed moralizing about taking the small pleasures of an affluent industrial society for granted. Iím sorry, but if somebody of affluence needs to be reminded to be thankful for his or her comfortable life, they need a wake up call a bit stronger than a sci-fi action movie.
There was a concerted effort to earn the final twist and the groundwork for it is laid from minute one. However, watching it a second time, I see thereís just as much that contradicts it. Going back and thinking it over you realize that the gunfight outside the Orpheum or the machete fight under the overpass is scarcely believable in this context, even by action movie standards. Itís not a full on cheat, but it certainly qualifies as a reach and the ending, which shoots for transcendence, manages only to be goofy.
For all its pseudo religious nonsense and insistence on being a ďmessage movie,Ē The Book of Eli
works best when itís dealing with the practical considerations of the apocalyptic world the Hughes Brothers have created. The best parts arenít the many gun or sword fights but when Eli is harvesting cat oil or bartering for fresh batteries. These elements feel entirely thought out and thought through, unlike the muddled themes and messages. The Book of Eli
is much more adept at creating a world than it is at populating it with fleshed out characters with convincing motivations.
While I acknowledge the talent the Hughes Brothers possess, Iíve appreciated their films far more than Iíve enjoyed them. They are undeniably skilled filmmakers. What they are not are masters of subtlety. Too often they use and reuse low angle shots and shots of the heroes silhouetted against the skyline. It betrays a lack of confidence in the audience, that we would make the connection that The Book of Eli
ís roots lay in the western and decided to apply a visual hammer to drive the point home. In terms of their direction of the action sequences they seem to be playing catch up with their contemporaries like Bay and others from the Bruckheimer school. The action is energetic, but brief and infrequent. There are a few shots that look plucked straight from the Bay playbook Ė a shot through the bullet hole in the side of the farmhouse and a shot from inside a lock as its being picked. These scenes are great, but the film could have used a few more doses of this type of adrenaline throughout.
Denzel Washington has been one of my favourite actors for a long time. Put him in a movie and the audience will instantly side with him. Itís probably a combination of his classic good looks and his ability to project integrity. He also has an almost unerring eye for material and the ability to pick projects. Denzel brings the same kind of quiet integrity and strength he brings to most of his roles but we donít ever learn very much about Eli as a person. I wish that heíd stretched a little, given Eli a touch of darkness or madness that would have shaded him a bit, instead of playing a stock ďheroĒ character Ė he speaks softly and carries a big sword (and gun). Heís not bad, by any stretch, but surrounded by such an interesting environment and outlandish characters, heís definitely the least interesting part of the movie.
When heís in top form, nobody can menace the screen they way Gary Oldman can. Carnegie, however, really isnít that malevolent. He seems like more of a pragmatist than anything. Yes, he does want to establish a new society that he can rule over but he doesnít seem unnecessarily cruel. After roles like Agent Stansfield in Leon
, having him play a relatively low-key role like Carnegie feels like a waste of a great actor. It doesnít help that for much of the film he looks almost as dead as he did in the opening scenes of Bram Stokerís Dracula
. Thereís a consistent motif of Carnegie with his arms out stretched: a willing Christ figure to Eliís reluctant messiah, but like a lot of the best concepts in the film this is largely squandered.
Although sheís best known for her role as super bitch Jackie from That 70ís Show
, Mila Kunis is proving herself to be a strong supporter in ensemble roles. She gives a great performance as Solara. Denzel towers over the petite Kunis and thankfully the role doesnít try to force a romance between them and instead makes it more surrogate protector or father figure. Most of Eliís character development is delivered through his relationship to Solara so Kunis is essentially burdened with the development of two characters, and she manages to pull it off. The final shot of the film sets up a sequel starring Solara in the Eli role; thatís a prospect that I actually look forward to.
The video on a movie so stylized as The Book of Eli
is tough to evaluate: on one hand itís loaded with crushed blacks and blown out contrast. On the other hand thatís entirely intentional. In those terms, The Book of Eli
faithfully represents the directorís vision for the look of the film. That still doesnít mean I have to agree with those choices or like how the film looks. I usually like the gritty, de-saturated look but itís taken too far to the extreme here. A little goes a long way. Sometimes the clouds have weird green or pink blotches that smear into the sky behind. Detail is pretty good in the environments; asphalt and sand show a lot of texture, as do the boards and bricks of bombed out buildings. Dust plumes are well rendered. A lot of the time characters appear in silhouette even when theyíre not lit from behind. As the move nears its conclusion colour starts to seep back into the palette but the video still retains its overly contrasty look.
The 5.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio track is as good as can be expected from a fairly large budget Hollywood movie. The quiet scenes are filled with appropriate sound effects and the score is effectively realized. Dialogue is mostly delivered in hushed tones or shouts, but both ends of the spectrum are represented well; dialogue is never hard to discern and well mixed so that you donít have to adjust the volume during the film. When Eli gets into the gunfights, however, is when the audio really shines. The sub rumbles with every shot from Eliís pistol as bullets ricochet in every direction. Some might criticize the audioís lack of subtlety, but itís perfectly appropriate to a larger than life story like Eliís.
Maximum Movie Mode is similar to Warnerís In Movie Experience. Supplemental material appears in a pop-up window, which can occasionally be expanded to a two to three minute video clip by pressing enter on the Blu-ray remote. Sometimes itís the directors talking about their vision for the look of the film, deconstructing the special effects or presenting pop up storyboards for direct comparison. Iím not totally sold on watching a movie this way; I much prefer to watch the feature and then experience the supplements separately. For the people who like the interactivity of a feature like this, Warner has done a bang up job of making the interface intuitive and easy to use. My only complaint is the constant popping as the audio switches from the Dolby Digital of the supplements to DTS-HD of the feature.
All of the larger vignettes from Maximum Movie Mode are accessible via the Focus Points option on the main menu.
A Lost Tale: Billy (5:02) is billed as an animated short detailing Carnegieís back-story. Thatís a bit misleading as itís not fully animated, but done in the style of a flash cartoon, like the Watchmen or Marvel ďmotion comics.Ē The short itself explains what doesnít need explanation and does a pretty poor job of it, at that. Unless youíre a fan of clichťd and obvious character motivations, it is not a terribly interesting watch.
In Starting Over (13:03) the directors, writer, actors and even professors of religion, political science and social work discuss the implications of the filmís post apocalyptic scenario. A neat idea, though I donít know what qualifies the people behind the film as experts in the field and the true experts speak in generalities. It would have been better to have the experts speak directly about aspects of the movie.
Eliís Journey (17:54) is really just more of the same kind of thing we saw in Maximum Movie mode: discussions of storyboards, pre viz work, production design and visual concepts. Not much to say about this. If you watched the feature in Maximum Movie Mode then thereís nothing here youíre not already privy to.
Deleted/Alternate Scenes (1:53) is mostly a collection of throwaway shots. The best is an extended take of Eliís first fight with Carnegieís thugs.
The Book of Eli Soundtrack (4:59) is a discussion between Allen Hughes and composer Atticus Ross. The score for Eli
is one of its strongest assets, but thereís not much deep discussion of the work behind the score. Hughes hijacks the conversation while Ross sits there saying almost nothing.
The Book of Eli
is pretty much the epitome of an early in the year studio B-movie. Itís slick and good looking with strong performances but heavy-handed storytelling weighs it down and prevents it from transcending its genre roots. Itís a solid nightís entertainment but is not really strong enough to inspire either rabid devotion nor rabid dislike. It works best when itís working as a pulpy sci-fi action western. The Hughes Brothers conjure up a vision of a post apocalyptic landscape that puts the prologue of Terminator 2
or the entirety of The Road Warrior
to shame, at least from the perspective of pure spectacle, though it doesnít even approach either of those standard bearers in any other way. I have a tough time swallowing the message even if I begrudgingly admire how earnestly itís delivered and the end of the film is somewhat refreshingly free of cynicism. A post-apocalyptic movie that ends on a note of optimism? Thatís got to be a greater miracle than any contained in Eli
ís mystical tome.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Movie - B-
Image Quality - B*
Sound - B+
Supplements - C+
- Running time - 1 hour and 58 minutes
- Rated R, 14A
- 2 Discs (1 Blu-ray, 1 DVD/Digital Copy combo disc)
- Chapter Stops
- English DTS-HD Master Audio
- French 5.1 (Dubbed in Quebec)
- Spanish 5.1
- English SDH subtitles
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- Maximum Movie Mode
- ďStarting OverĒ featurette
- ďEliís JourneyĒ featurette
- ďThe Book of Eli SoundtrackĒ featurette
- Deleted Scenes
- A Lost Tale: Billy animated short