Hearts and minds

The Book of Eli

You’re not that mysterious, Denzel.

You’re not that mysterious, Denzel.

Rated 2.0

The word at the advance screening for The Book of Eli that I attended was that 15 or 20 minutes had been trimmed from its running time since its last preview. The movie clocks in at a modest 118 minutes now, but if the folks at Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment want to lop off another 10 minutes or so, it probably wouldn’t hurt.

Denzel Washington plays Eli, although the movie is nearly over before we learn his name. Eli stalks through the sort of post-apocalyptic landscape that is beloved of CGI technicians the world over, all derelict buildings; rutted, deserted roads; and crumbling unused freeway ramps to nowhere, populated by motley bands of savage marauders and their desperate, ill-clad, underfed, wretched victims.

It’s just the kind of wasteland that teenagers in video arcades like to hang out in for tokens on end, so it’s surely no coincidence that the writer, Gary Whitta, was a founding editor of both the U.K. and U.S. editions of PC Gamer magazine. The Book of Eli is evidently Whitta’s first screenplay, though the record is contradictory: Wikipedia’s article on Whitta mentions a number of scriptwriting ventures that are not reflected in his entry on the Internet Movie Database. Whatever the facts, Whitta’s post-nuclear wilderness is one that will be familiar to readers of science fiction such as Ward Moore’s Lot and Lot’s Daughter, Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Too familiar, in fact. Whitta is plowing up ground that has long been overcultivated, and by writers better than he. Directors Albert and Allen Hughes (billing themselves as the Hughes Brothers) adopt a style of portentous heaviness, but it takes more than plodding solemnity to turn clichés into archetypes. Eli is one such cliché, a questing knight errant, a not-so-young Lochinvar come out of the East on a mission to deliver a mysterious book which he carries and will let no one touch. (Not so mysterious to us in the audience, even the dullest of whom will figure out early on that Eli is carrying a King James Bible.)

Another cliché is Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the tin-pot dictator of a Godforsaken little town who covets Eli’s book because he sees it as a way to control people’s hearts and minds. Then there are Carnegie’s cunning henchman Redridge (Ray Stevenson) and blind concubine Claudia (Jennifer Beals), and Claudia’s daughter Solara (Mila Kunis), who comes under Eli’s reluctant protection. Rounding out the cast of principals is the Engineer, a merchant in Carnegie’s ramshackle town (Tom Waits), and an elderly couple whom Eli and Solara encounter in their travels (Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon).

The movie bristles with references and in-jokes until it looks as motley as the characters with their makeshift clothes and catch-all equipment stashes. The villain’s name is Carnegie, and he shows a proclivity for collecting books even before Eli turns out to have the one he’s been seeking. Is this meant to be a sour allusion to Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate who endowed thousands of libraries all over the world? If so, it’s no doubt wasted on the movie’s audience, most of whom probably wouldn’t know a Carnegie library if one fell on them. And the old couple Eli and Solara meet are named George and Martha. How droll—but are we supposed to think of the Washingtons, or of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

In the end, it hardly matters. Such questions wouldn’t even occur if The Book of Eli’s characters had any resonance of their own, or if the story carried any suspense. But since we know almost immediately what’s going on and what it is that Eli’s protecting, it’s not hard to extrapolate how it will all turn out. (There is, however, a twist ending that is so silly and implausible that it can’t help but be a complete surprise.) So we settle down to bear with Eli’s endless trudging through the blasted landscape, punctuated with quick flurries of video-game violence.

The Book of Eli may boast a futuristic vision, but it already looks old hat. Mainly, it reminds us how potent the movie of The Road was, and of what a good movie A Canticle for Leibowitz would make.