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THE BOOK OF ELI: a review

Written by Subject: Entertainment: Movies
     You may have seen by now the previews or ads for the movie THE BOOK OF ELI, and wondered from that title was there any religious theme to this story. The answer is undoubtedly “yes”, but that is misleading if left unexplained.
   To be brief, and without giving too much of the plot away (I’ll do that later, so read on at your peril), Denzel Washington is Eli, a fellow walking across a crater-scarred post-apocalyptic America some 30 years or so after “The War”. He is going west, which is all the explanation he gives about his destination to those who inquire. It has taken him years to get from one end to the other, delayed no doubt by the need to scavenge for food, shoes, water and other necessities that can’t easily be had. Oh yes, and trying to avoid the other humans left alive, who it seems would all just as easily kill you for your water in your canteen as say hello. And then eat you. You can tell which people you meet are cannibals by how they have the shakes; the homo sapiens version of Mad Cow Disease, if you will, from too steady a diet for too long a period of other people.
     Gary Oldman, returning to the role of villain (at which he was always best, and which made him a star), is the big honcho who runs one of the few outposts of what passes for civilization. But the worst rustler’s hangout in the old western frontier’s worst cow town was enlightened Paris compared this place. Like any baron seeking to lay claim to the untamed lands (and their people) of the 19th century, Gary Oldman also has aspirations, ruthless command of his town and an inspired plan, so dastardly as it is brilliant. He controls the water,…the only water for hundreds and hundreds of miles. With it, he buys and sells anything or anyone.
     But for Oldman, as with any true villainous ruler, what he has is never enough. Not only does he have secret knowledge of where pure uncontaminated underground springs are located, which can provide life to the lifeless wasteland (the secret of his power thus far), but is one of the few left alive from “the before”. He was raised with The Bible, and remembers well its power. But almost no one else has a clue as to this. Because you see, in the aftermath of “The War”, many survivors blamed religion for bringing the war. Religion of all kinds was held in hostility, and a sort of witch-hunt for any text of any faith ensued. Between the eradication of religion and the daily battles between pillagers and foragers that came in the years after, hardly anyone even has bullets for the few guns that still exist. Supposedly, no physical specimen of The Bible remains. But if Oldman has any faith, it is that there must be a copy somewhere. And if it is within the reach of his realm, he must possess it.
     But why?
     Because Oldman is aware of it’s power. And power is what Oldman wants. All the better to enslave and rule with, for a population that has never known of The Bible or it’s message,…or how to interpret it. Or how it has been used before. But Oldman knows. And so does Eli.
     Because you see, Eli has in his possession the last King James Bible. And the reason for his journey west is to deliver it to a refuge; a place of safety where, on faith, he is sure it is destined to be. Eli is a sort of warrior monk; not too unlike David Carradine’s Quai Chang Kane from the Kung Fu tv series. He’ll kick your ass if he has to, but he’d much rather just stay on his path; his quest. His jihad, if you will. But of course, some people just won’t leave you alone.
     Jennifer Beals (still beautiful after all these years) is Oldman’s greatest possession, as is her daughter, Solara, played by Mila Kunis. When Eli comes to town, hoping to just pass through, he unfortunately gets beset upon in the local watering hole. The resulting close-quarters bladesmanship makes the Obi Wan Kenobi arm-severing cantina scene in STAR WARS look like amateur hour. Oldman figures Eli would make a good henchman and tries to tempt him to stick around. He even sends the lovely Solara to his overnight lodging to see if she can tempt him. Quite inadvertently, she learns of his book. Not knowing what it represents or how sensitive the matter is, she also accidentally tips off Oldman that the tool of dominion and power he seeks is just down the hall.
     Knowing it is time to get the hell out of Dodge, Eli flees. But Solara is intrigued both by him and his book. Never liking her situation anyway, she decides to follow Eli. A fateful decision, which Eli warns is hazardous and unwise.
     I could go on and tell you how it all ends, but that would be criminal, because this is a very good movie on many different levels. And why spoil what I’m sure almost anyone will enjoy.
     Before going to see THE BOOK OF ELI, I was intrigued to do so by another review of the movie I had read. The reviewer in that instance was someone you might call a partisan for Christianity in the culture wars. As a professional reviewer, but also a man of Christian faith, he was routinely disappointed with Hollywood for its lack of seeking to market to the sector of American society for whom religion is a central guiding part of their lives. His lament is a common one;…Hollywood will often portray the world is more enslaved by religion than it is liberated by it,…that in Hollywood, religion is “bad”. Whereas, in THE BOOK OF ELI, to that reviewer’s opinion, Eli’s quest to save “the Word” from the clutches of evil men and put it back into circulation among all people, is nothing less than the salvation of all mankind. A positive, pro-faith message.
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And while THE BOOK OF ELI could indeed be viewed through one’s bias as pro-faith, it could equally be said to validate the fears of those who view religion to be nothing more than the opiate for the masses and a tool for those with ill intentions who would rule us. It reminds us that words and ideas can and do kill. It shows both the level to which mankind can devolve when life is hard and times are bleak (which we know but deny is in each of us), as well as the more evolved compassion to fellow men and ability to rebuild (which we don’t really know as well as we think we do, and believe is our primary nature).
     Regardless of which side of the faith lens you view THE BOOK OF ELI through, however, there is no escaping another central facet of the story that glares brightly as any other of the “messages” in the film. And that is mankind and history are never more than one generation removed from significant, monumental paradigm shifts in how man sees his world around him, and how that can change his very existence. 
     The story in THE BOOK OF ELI hits our theatres in interesting times. We are currently engaged in a war where religion is a central element. And our darkest fears are that this war could one day become so uncontained as to release nuclear holocaust, perhaps creating a landscape as barren and as unfathomable as that portrayed in the movie. Introspection as to one’s faith (or lack thereof) is perhaps of more global implication to mankind and its future than we realize or would be comfortable admitting. And while THE BOOK OF ELI is fully capable of being enjoyed purely as a secularly entertaining sci-fi “what if” fantasy, it also speaks to deeper themes of which we should be concerned.
     And if, as I, you are one of those who the ignorant would mistakenly call a ‘survivalist’ (when we simply seek ‘preparedness’ – so perhaps “preppers” would make for a better label), you have likely been a movie fan of “after the end of the world” type films for some time. And if so, keep your eyes peeled for some of the not-so-hidden tips of the hat to such films from yesteryear.
     While Denzel Washington gets top billing as the film’s central character, Gary Oldman is really the star of this thing. As mentioned previously, he was always best as a villain. Some of his previous bad guys have been deliciously over the top, like the corrupt DEA agent in THE PROFESSIONAL. But showing his mastery of the dark side, here he knows he doesn’t need to outwardly demonstrate how thoroughly evil he is. After all, Oldmans character himself isn’t nearly as evil as is the idea and intention he carries. He doesn’t have to explain to you how there is nothing he wouldn’t do or anyone he wouldn’t kill. Merely by how he carries himself and his expression, you just KNOW it. Denzel isn’t bad either, and does a great job at taking what is really a rather simple and unremarkable character and giving him personal dimension. He also skillfully plays several hints along the way to something about his character that is only revealed at the end, but if you were looking for it was there all along. Not an easy thing to do.
     As someone who is a hopeless skeptic and mostly unimpressed by what Hollywood turns out these days, I urge you to consider seeing THE BOOK OF ELI.   

2 Comments in Response to

Comment by Chip Saunders
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 Powell:  Since the chinese written language is pictographic, does the phoenetic Roman alphabet interpretation of it really matter that much? We see that all the time with arabic.

Comment by Powell Gammill
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That's "Kwai Chang Caine," grasshopper.

Thank you for the review as the trailer had me curious.