Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Book of Eli (2010, Albert & Allen Hughes)

The Book of Eli feels like a genre movie from times before legally grown adults started taking movies based on action figures seriously. There is also nothing remotely original in the screenplay by Gary Whitta, former editor of PC Gamer, perfectly all right in this case. The one original element I saw which hadn't yet been used in any sci-fi or post-apocalypse action movie - probably more than a few dime store novels, but not movies - is a terrific pot to cook the warmed over Mad Max cliches in: the last Bible on Earth. If you knew this already, you probably had to make an effort.

Warner Brothers, the American distributors of The Road Warrior way back when, utterly missed their chance to exploit this angle and differentiate their product as more than a mere throwback to the post-apocalypse adventure subgenre long gone out of style since Kevin Costner directed Waterworld and The Postman back to back. However, Warner's recent Terminator: Salvation is nothing if not a desert-bound post-apocalypse actioner, and this is a hell of a better movie which could have done better with the right promotion.

Were they afraid to try selling a Christian Mad Max? The boring posters indicate a certain reluctance, with the only theological taglines being the non-denominational "Religion is Power" and the Obamarbitrary "Believe in Hope." Of course, the fine art of the tagline has been dead as long as the poster. I didn't see the trailer until after the movie and that gave even less indication of the thematic content than those taglines. Hollywood's godless hedonists don't have the gumption to stand behind a pro-religious film which they themselves released, for fear of being unhip. Could they have possibly had a better business omen than the fact the most profitable religious pic of all time was made by Mad Mel himself? Ironically the first Mad Max had a perfect tagline to reuse: Pray he's out there...somewhere.

"Denzel Washington Beyond Thunderdome" was my first derisive prejudgement and probably a few other people's as well. Amazingly, Eli would probably have been a more fitting close to the Mad Max trilogy in the 80s than the campy, kid-safe Beyond Thunderdome - closer in bleak tone to Road Warrior while recycling Thunderdome's basic Western story structure that so suits the post-apocalypse: lone antihero in lawless times passes through a tough town, impresses the cunning local despot who runs things and makes his enemy by refusing to work for him. Out of intuition or practice or both, Gary Oldman plays a far more fearsome villain than Tina Turner (without having to sing over the end credits) and the desolate barter town he presides over is a lot more convincing than Thunderdome's elaborately production designed jungle gym. Both films also eschew any car action until the final act. At least that's not missing the point in Eli, which instead opts to borrow a scene from Six-String Samurai and then steal the ending of Fahrenheit 451

If Mel Gibson had found religion in a less anti-Semitic way and had the clout to incorporate that into his films, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome could have been The Book of Eli. The post-apocalypse subgenre lends itself very well to religious themes especially where the mythic lone warriors who tend to star in them are involved. What better way to explain their miraculous luck in the ruins of civilization than to insinuate divine protection? The hand of god also serves as an unexpectedly satisfactory explanation for Denzel Washington's rote kung-fu badassery; the usual superhuman hand-to-hand combat skills which action movies have made cliche since The Matrix and audiences have come to expect in any setting, even outside magical virtual reality fantasy worlds.

For the editor of a magazine which has to cover first person shooters, Gary Whitta has more judicious sense of pacing when it comes to action sequences than probably any other working screenwriter today. Their limited number displays a reassuring confidence in the strength of his own story and affords real gravity to the consequences of who lives and dies in each setpiece. The Hughes Brothers shoot each fist fight, gun fight and car crash as simply as possible, letting the stunts and squibs speak for themselves - another breath of old fashioned air is the lack of fast editing or CGI where practical stunts will do - which is everywhere. As far as I could tell, everything that blew up was actually blown up. Will George Miller be able to say the same for the eventual Mad Max 4?

Lest the religious overtones make this popcorn movie sound like a proselytizing Chick Tract, rest assured this movie won't change anyone's mind about anything. Only hardcore atheists will find Denzel Washington's rendition of the Lord's Prayer to be worth walking out of the theater over. Whitta is probably not a serious Christian. If he were, Gary Oldman wouldn't be out to claim the last Bible on Earth, he'd be trying to destroy it. Whitta isn't even theologically curious enough to explore the idea of how moral edicts would be created in a world that's never heard of religion. He just wanted a unique spin for a good Mad Max knockoff and by golly, the Hughes Brothers made it. Judging by the interviews for the film, Denzel Washington is the only committed Christian involved: Albert and Allen take the same measures as Warner Brothers to distance themselves from any religious message while Denzel can't wait for everyone to find Jesus. 

No amount of faith from anyone was going to remove some of the really dumb touches. There's a few awkward lines of comic relief and a really idiotic scene where Denzel finds a working iPod in the radioactive rubble. The ending goes on exactly too long enough to set up Denzel's sidekick Mila Kunis for a sequel. In spite of these minor irritants, The Book of Eli is a worthy time waster for any starving fan of genre flicks without mainstream backing - if only because it had a little god talk sprinkled on. Enjoy what will probably be the last guilt-free post-apocalypse adventure of modern times before we finally have to take nuclear proliferation seriously.


BacktoBasicsLizzi said...

Hey what about the not so subtle analogy of the Denzel character to that original blind warrior, Zatoichi? Just asking!

Unknown said...

You're right, I know of Zatoichi but didn't recognize that was one more theft in the mix. At least it's not revealed until the very end, as a twist. My first reaction to it was that his abilities in spite of blindness were just as divinely miraculous as taking a bullet to the stomach without bleeding to death.

If I were to see a Zatoichi movie, which one should I start with?

Nick said...

What's the rip from 6 String Samurai?

Unknown said...

The appearance of a folksy, down-home cannibal family - in Eli's case, just a husband and wife, but the joke is almost the same.