Monday, February 1, 2010

The Book of Eli

With post-apocalyptic movies the details are so very important. They are little things, but it is the little things that truly make a world believable, and that really stand out when they don’t fit. To be honest the same issues pop up in a lot of westerns as well.

The first problem that always springs to mind is teeth and dental hygiene. After the breakdown of civilization, for whatever reason, there is very likely to be a total dearth of dentist offices, and I’m pretty certain that no one is going to continue to manufacture tubes of Aquafresh for you. Given those circumstances, every time I see some post-apocalyptic war monger with a mohawk and shoulder pads, who also still happens to have a perfectly straight set of pearly whites, I get distracted from whatever is going on and start to wonder of maybe he has the last oral hygienist of the wasteland on retainer back at his fortress.

Shaving also distracts me. These are hard, desperate times. These are times when survival is goal number one, two, and three. You don’t have to maintain a smooth visage for work, and, like the teeth thing, you more than likely don’t have ready, daily access to the resources necessary for daily grooming. It seems strange to me in many post-apocalyptic movies when the men are all clean-shaven, and all of the ladies still shave their armpits.

Cleanliness will be a luxury after Armageddon. There are two groups of people I can think of who will likely still cling to the routines of daily bodily maintenance. First are prostitutes. Through necessity of profession, they’ll probably try to stay tidy. For them it is a business expenditure.

The second group is those with the power. Like I said, shaving will be a luxury, a decadent act, and you know who has the time and means to shave? The guys who run shit, that’s who. Think of Adam Ant in World Gone Wild. He’s always meticulously groomed, and even though he wears head-to-toe white in the middle of the desert, he’s spotless. You can tell just by looking at him that he’s the man in charge. After the end of the world, if you see a guy with a fresh shave and a clean set of clothes, run, for that is not someone to be trifled with. He will most likely skin you alive and hang you from something tall as a warning to everyone else not to fuck with him.

The Book of Eli walks down the middle of the road when it comes to the details. Everyone has fucked up grills except a specific few. Even among the women, the only ones who maintain a western civilization level of cleanliness are essentially courtesans or kept women. And the only one with a clean shave is Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the local despot who likes to read books about Mussolini.

The art department got those details right, but there are others that they miss, mainly the clothes. If we are to believe the stories, then there was a massive holy war thirty years ago that “tore a hole in the sky,” and scrappy bands of survivors have been eking out a meager existence ever since. Long gone are mass produced chinos, fairly knew looking wool watch caps, and evenly stitched garments off all descriptions. Early on, the protagonist, in his pristine khakis, finds a suicided corpse who just happens to be wearing a lightly worn pair of Doc Martins. Score. Maybe he had a stockpile, but I don’t really buy it.

This leads me to my first major issue with The Book of Eli. Like I mentioned, the story takes place thirty years after doom’s day. That is what they tell us, but the details don’t back up the story. It seems to me that after thirty years things would be farther gone. There are a lot of bullets left, more gasoline than I would have expected, I already mentioned the clothes, and more canned goods than one would expect after thirty years of scavenging. At one point, Eli goes into a deserted house and tries the sink. Of course nothing comes out, but after thirty years, I think I would stop checking things like that.

I could buy that this movie takes place after ten, maybe even fifteen years, but I just don’t entirely buy thirty. Enough, I should talk about the actual movie.

Former Kmart employee, Eli (Denzel Washington), is a lone samurai wandering through the sun-blanched wasteland of what used to be the western United States. Much like Jake and Elwood Blues, he is on a mission from God. That mission is to escort the last existing copy of the Holy Bible to a safe place somewhere out west. Turns out that all the bibles were hunted down and burned after the war, and that religion was apparently the root cause of the hostilities.

I don’t usually think of Denzel as a badass. He can be tough, but it’s usually a more cerebral, thinking man’s, kind of tough. He’s good at being menacing, like in Training Day, but doesn’t usually play the reactionary, fight at the drop of a hat character. In the first act, there are ample moments where he shows otherwise, as he machetes his way through some hijackers and then dismantles an entire bar after spouting a few bible verses. The movie starts off with a lot of promise, and nice amount of severed heads and hacked off limbs.

While Eli has been doing his level best to keep the bible safe for thirty years, Carnegie has spent the last three decades trying to find his own copy. Both men are old enough to remember the before times, both are literate men, and both are well aware of the power of the bible and religion. Eli wants to use the power for good, while Carnegie wants to exploit it and use it for control.

Carnegie is the most interesting character here. He is the most multi-dimensional. On the one hand he is a tyrannical dictator who uses force and fear to lord over the population of his town. On the other hand, he does his best to provide safety for his people, establish an infrastructure that supplies things like clean water, and at a basic level, believes in community. He has had to do awful things in order to create and maintain this little slice of what life was like before, but at times it seems like he does them with an earnest, though misguided, sense of the greater good at heart. There is a duality that exists in Carnegie’ character that isn’t there in the simple, single-minded Eli, or any of the other characters. He is driven and corrupt, and that is ultimately his undoing.

At the heart, The Book of Eli is a fairly simple story. Eli has the book, Carnegie wants it, and that’s all that really matters. Everything else is superfluous.

There are things I really like about this movie, and things I really don’t. Aside from the details I mentioned, it does look pretty good. There is washed out quality to the images and a simple, monochromatic color palate that works very well with the setting, and despite the over use of dramatic slow-motion, the Hughes Brothers (American Pimp), create a good looking film.

The filmmakers are obviously aware of the post-apocalyptic as a genre, and give a number of nods to the history. At one point there is a poster from A Boy and His Dog (the sweet ass 1975, Don Johnson joint) on the wall; there is a motorcycle riding, post-apocalyptic extra wearing shoulder pads; and there is even a tip of the cap to George R. Stewart’s classic 1949 novel, Earth Abides. The scene with the elderly cannibal couple, who have spent thirty years killing and eating trespassers, is awesome, though woefully short. Overall, I would have liked to see a little more on the cannibalism front. There is a lot of talk about it, but it gets limited screen time.

The action sequences are pretty righteous. From the early machete battles, to the climactic shootout, all of it is engaging and badass. Personally, I could have used a little more action, but I pretty much always want more action. It’s like cowbell, there is rarely enough.

I’m not usually a fan of twist endings. They either have to happen organically, or be something unique and original. And there are a couple of twists here at the end. One you will see coming from a mile away, maybe farther, especially if you pay attention, or have ever read Fahrenheit 451. The other part of it just feels really contrived and isn’t set up enough to really be believable. When it happens you’re like, “Wait, does that mean he’s. . . Really? I don’t know that I buy that.”

The God and religion stuff also gets really old. The movie starts out action oriented, but then the spiritual stuff takes over the narrative. I’ll admit that I am highly biased against religion and have been for all of my adult life. This is neither the time, nor place to get into it, so I’ll leave it at that. But as it goes on, The Book of Eli becomes overly preachy and simplistic. All of the initial complexity in Carnegie goes away, and by the third act he is just a stock villain with nothing to redeem him.

At times this starts to feel like one of those Christian produced judgment day movies, like Omega Code, or the Left Behind series. It gets less and less interesting as the movie progresses. This is especially annoying to me because they spend the entire movie going the religious route, and then at the very end they try to back away from it. It is jarring and unsatisfying, and I walked away feeling like all of the trouble, in the end, was pointless.

If you have nothing better to do, and have a hankering to see a recent post-apocalyptic movie, you might as well watch The Book of Eli. Of course I’ll say that you should watch any of the Mad Max movies, World Gone Wild, A Boy and His Dog, 2019: After the Fall of New York, 1990: The Bronx Warriors, or any of the dozens of post-apocalyptic films out there, instead.

I do have to admit that I enjoy the resurgence of the post-apocalyptic in popular culture, in movies, comics, and literature. When the Cold War ended, it seemed like the genre was done for. Though with the current political climate, a war that seems likely to extend into the indefinite future, and eight years of an insane cowboy with his finger on the button, the general fear of obliteration, and the accompanying annihilation fantasies, has once again made an appearance in public.

What does that say about me that, one, I missed the paranoia and fear of the end of the world that fueled much of my childhood, and two, I welcome it back with open arms? I don’t think I’m going to dig any further into that; it would probably just worry me.

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