July 10, 2010

The Book of Eli

Okay, I know a Twilight post was due today, but I couldn't wait. I simply must tell you about the Hughes brothers' The Book of Eli, an embarrassing Frankenstein's Monster of a post-apocalyptic film, a genre I happen to love, thank you very much. Reading and watching a few reviews and checking out Rotten Tomatoes, it seems some people have got it into their heads that this movie is not bad. They are sadly mistaken. The Book of Eli is what you get if you take the Mad Max films and spaghetti westerns and put them in a blender, with a dash of The Postman for that extra flavour of Costnerian derivative tripe. Readers who come to this blog to take in Twilight-bashing by a semi-competent half-educated hack are free to skip to the real entry coming up next week. Those wishing to hate on a crappy Denzel Washington movie, read on.

The Book of Eli (alternate title: Neo: The Road Warrior) follows Denzel Washington as Eli, a fellow who treks through a post-apocalyptic wasteland carrying a book. He has been taking the book west, on foot, for thirty years, where it will find an appropriate place to work its magic. Eli is one of the few left who remember what the world was like before the unspecified nuclear holocaust that left most of the people who lived through it blind, and since he is both an unstoppable killing machine and a literate man, he is extremely valuable to the small-time overlord played by Gary Oldman, who only lusts after him more once he discovers that Eli is carrying the very book Oldman has been searching for since the nuclear fire rained down three decades ago.

Why you would hire actors of the caliber of Oldman and Washington and then give them nothing to do, I can't say, and I'm not sure the directors, the brothers Hughes, can, either. Then again, Oldman was in both Bram Stoker's Clearly Not Dracula and Hannibal, so he's no stranger to giving good performances in cinematic train wrecks. For Eli, he digs his performance in The Fifth Element out of the closet and dons it once more, and that's okay, because nothing else in the movie is original.

I've seen reviewers praise this film for its innovative re-setting of the Western in a post-apocalyptic world. These reviewers must have just lived through their own world-destroying "flash" that made them forget what happened thirty years ago, or they'd know The Road Warrior did this back in 1981. In fact, there's nothing in this movie that wasn't done better in The Road Warrior. I can't believe we're still ripping off The Road Warrior after a full three decades, and the Hughes brothers aren't even Italian! Is the post-apocalyptic genre so dead that even A-list filmmakers can only make the same movie over and over, minus all the colorful villains, moral ambiguity, and heart-pounding driving sequences? Can't we just get Beyond Thunderdome? Face it, Hughes Brothers. You can't do "living off the corpse of the old world" better than the Australians, the undisputed masters of modern society fallen into pseudo-medieval chaos. Aping George Miller just makes baby Jesus cry. (Yes, Neil Marshall's Doomsday, I'm looking at you.)

But the Hughes brothers don't just steal from The Road Warrior. I'll leave the Sergio Leone lifts alone, since it's hard to make a Western without ripping off Leone. (Unforgiven manages to pull this off, one of the reasons that film ranks among the greatest of Westerns.) It's too bad that, in stealing from Leone, they didn't also steal some of Ennio Morricone's music, since the music in The Book of Eli is atrocious. Never mind that, though, we've got some ripping-off of (sigh) The Matrix to do. It's not in the way the action sequences are shot. (Thank the Buddha, there's no bullet-time.) It's that instead of ripping off Leone's unstoppable gunslinger, who defeats his enemies through his superior fighting skill, the Hughes brothers ripped off Neo, who wins fights by bending time and space to his will.

Mad Max was not a superhero. He had a gun loaded with rounds that didn't work, and he was badly injured when he wrecked his car. He survived more through brains and driving skill than through brawn and endless rounds of ammunition, and his life was saved both by a guy who built a flying tricycle and by a kid who threw a boomerang more dangerous than Xena: Warrior Princess's chakram. Eli, on the other hand, is Neo. The guy is literally untouchable. Remember the final battle in the original Matrix, in which Neo nonchalantly beats the hell out of Agent Smith? Now imagine Neo was like that through the whole movie, and you have Eli. He whips out an ungainly, impractical serrated blade and effortlessly cuts multiple opponents to pieces, all without raising an eyebrow or the film's tension, since Eli is not only unbeatable but knows he's unbeatable, as if he read the script and knows he makes it to the end of the film. Nobody lays a glove on him, even the wasted Ray Stevenson, who towers over Denzel and outweighs him by a good forty pounds (and it ain't fat). Stevenson's character shoots Eli from behind and the bullet penetrates the leather collar of Denzel's jacket, directly behind his neck, but Eli is unscathed. (Where did the bullet go?) Moments later, Pullo draws a bead on Eli, who is standing perhaps twenty feet away doing absolutely nothing, yet Stevenson doesn't fire, instead allowing DenzEli to stroll casually out of boss Oldman's faux-Bartertown. Why? Because if he pulled the trigger, Eli would be dead and the movie would be over. Though later, Oldman does shoot Eli with a gigantic pistol from point-blank range and he doesn't die or even stop walking west, so I guess that shows what I know about the human body's ability to absorb damage from high-caliber firearms. How is Eli able to survive being gutshot with a hand cannon? Because "it's faith, it doesn't have to make sense."

No, seriously, that's a directly quote from the movie. Apparently, in some quarters, this movie is seen as some kind of statement of religious faith. Now, maybe I can't understand this movie because I'm a godless heathen who has some conception of the laws of physics, conventions of storytelling, and half an understanding of cinema, but The Book of Eli has six impossible things happen before breakfast with the only excuse being that faith doesn't have to make sense, and we're supposed to swallow this plot convenien--err, I mean, bold proclamation of religious faith. If I were religious, I'd be insulted. "Hey, Hughes brothers", hypothetical religious me would say, "just because I'm religious doesn't mean you can invoke faith to excuse lazy writing." But that's exactly what Eli does. Faith doesn't have to make sense, and neither does The Book of Eli. The entire narrative builds up to a moment in which Eli loses and is killed by the villain...only he doesn't die and instead goes on to win (told ya he's Neo), because God--or His representatives, the Hughes brothers--said so. If you're mad that this is a spoiler, trust me, it's not. If you watch the film--and God help you if you do--you won't believe for one second that Eli will die in this scene. It's painfully obvious that the filmmakers don't have the guts to be honest with their material and will somehow find a way for Eli to win, even if it amounts to them effectively walking in front of the camera and saying, "Nah, let's not end the film like this, eh?"

Most (all?) reviews of The Book of Eli tell you what book it is, and that's no spoiler, since a brain-damaged aardvark could figure it out within the first fifteen minutes of this soul-crushingly long movie (if the title doesn't give it away right out of the gate). Now, I'm no fan of Eli's book, the Bible, but despite the movie's strained attempt to explain why it's so rare, I never for a moment believed that possibly the world's most printed book would be so hard to come by. In fact, despite the film's claim that people blamed religion for the nuclear holocaust and so systematically destroyed all the Bibles after The Bomb (as if the film portrays a society that retains enough cohesion to systematically do, well, anything), you can't buy that there's only one copy left. What, mobs of blind people and illiterates went through every motel in the United States, located the Bible in every room in every motel, and burned them all? Every bookstore? Every library? Every home? (No, not every home would have a Bible, but how would you know which ones did unless you checked them all?)

And really, in the event of a nuclear apocalypse, the Bible would be even more treasured and valued than it is now. The Hughes brothers, for all their piety in creating this film, seem shockingly naive when it comes to how the Bible would be treated in a post-apocalyptic world, so naive that even the infidel--i.e., me--can point at their naivety and laugh. More, Eli refuses to let anyone even see the book and kills to protect it, which goes against the message of at least the New Testament as I understood it. (The film's ending 'twist'--not even all that twist-y--renders Eli's behavior in this completely nonsensical and makes God come off as a sadistic murderer.)

Must I even go through the myriad plotholes? How does the impossibly immaculate female lead (Mi Laku Nis) manage to escape from the room Eli locks her in? How does she subsequently manage to end up ahead of Eli, who continued west after locking her up, and without passing him on the road? How could it possibly have taken Eli thirty years to walk to the west coast of the United States? Can George Miller sue all these horrible knockoffs of his post-apocalyptic masterpieces? Why does Eli's God not want him to save a woman from a brutal gang-rape, when he has God-given(?) superpowers and immunity to harm that would allow him to defeat her attackers in a matter of seconds and continue on his way? (He's been walking for thirty years, so God doesn't seem in any big hurry.) Why hasn't Malcolm McDowell fired his agent, already? Why is the Ray Stevenson character's final scene so retarded? How can knowledge of what the pre-apocalyptic world was like have so thoroughly vanished in a mere thirty years? Why, after establishing that people born before The Bomb can read and have valuable skills, are there no scenes of how important these people are to the functioning of what's left of society?* Which George, Romero or Miller, has been ripped off more, and does the winner change if we only count Italy? Where does Eli keep the mountains of spare ammunition he goes through in various firefights?

The performances are generally okay, but no-one stands out. Oldman, as noted, is a less flamboyant version of his Fifth Element villain, so low-key that he never seems menacing despite his frequent brutality to women. Washington gamely tries to create a character, but he has nothing to work with. We learn absolutely nothing about Eli throughout the course of the movie. What did he do in the old world? How did he learn his incredible fighting skills? Did he have a family, and what happened to them? We never find out. He hears God talk to him, he walks west, he kills a lot of people. That's all there is to his character. Washington isn't very adept at the action stuff, and his acting talent and charisma are smothered by the character's lack of a third or even a second dimension, so again, why was he hired? Poor Ray Stevenson. The guy has shown he can act, but he keeps getting nothing parts like this one and the lead in that godawful Punisher sequel. Somebody get this man a good role! Mi Laku Nis plays herself, i.e., generic and unmemorable. Oh, and Jennifer Beals has a role as a woman who gets her hair pulled a lot.

What's left to say about The Book of Eli? Nothing, I suppose. I wonder about the next film that will be ripped off for three solid decades. Nothing in the '90s seems a likely candidate but The Matrix, which came out at the end and so still has another twenty years to go. Will the imitation Lord of the Ringses last like those of Aliens or The Terminator, whose rip-off machines are still going strong after almost thirty years?

Still, there is a tiny ray of hope to be gleaned from The Book of Mad Max: Maybe it will inspire a few people to discover the original Mad Max films. Hey, it happened to me when The Road Warrior showed up in theaters in 1995, under the title Waterworld.
* I'm recalling a passage from The Stand in which a character explains why wars would be fought between settlements over who gets control of a doctor, say, or a mechanic, two professions whose skills are not easily learned without a skilled guide. But then, Stephen King was thinking about how a post-apocalyptic world would actually function, while the Hughes brothers are concerned only with how such a world would look on screen.

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