Thursday, 21 January 2010

Film Review: The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli:
Dir: the Hughes Brothers
Starring: Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour, Max von Sydow

This seems to be the month of post-apocalyptic dramas, doesn't it? 'The Road' and 'The Book of Eli' in a short space of time. Truly, we are blessed... Kinda.

'Eli' tales the story of broody drifter Eli, walking across America in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, heading West with only a massive machete, an iPod, and a mysterious book to his name. Naturally, this quest is complicated by nefarious survivors, not to mention the standard lack of supplies and shelter.

For a start, I should mention that the film is rather beautiful, with the action set against a stark, bleached landscape that evokes the wild west, post nuclear fallout. It's not conventionally pretty, but it is different, which is always to be applauded - although this doesn't extend to the 'city' where a fair chunk of the action takes place; it's a generic shanty town, and the same can be said of the scenes on the road and the Golden Gate Bridge - been there, seen the car strewn road, got the t-shirt.

Still on the positive side, there are sporadic bursts of stylishly brutal violence, with Eli demonstrating some formidable blade skills, and revealing himself to be a pretty good shot as well. We even get some pretty decent performances - Gary Oldman's villainous mayor is a role he could probably play in his sleep, but he's typically good, and Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour provide a touch of humour as redneck cannibals for a couple of scenes.

Sadly, Denzel Washington as Eli is a rather dull lead, given little to do except brood and kick arse. To be fair, Washington does this well, but as the heart and soul of the film, Eli leaves you feeling cold during the first half of the film. Indeed, at times he comes across as being as bad as the people he spends so much time fighting. And if you're anything like me, you'll spend the second half trying to work out how he can be so ridiculously tough to worry about the fact that you're not engaged with him. Similarly, Mila Kunis as Solara, Oldman's stepdaughter, is restricted to token spunky female - who is dressed in curiously modern fashion for a character born maybe twenty years after a nuclear war. It's comforting to know that skinny jeans will still be around in the final years of the human race, I guess (and iPods, despite being notoriously fragile. The product placement in this film is immense.)

My main problem comes with the film's message: that the world can be saved by faith in God. I don't object to the message in principle, but the way it was delivered left a sour taste in my mouth. For one thing, faith in God here appears to mean you get badass ninja skills and immortality (which would probably do a lot of good for congregation numbers...), with the moral aspects of it rather sidelined. This becomes a plotpoint, true, but nevertheless. Following several scenes of Eli moralising to Solara, the final shot - of the Bible being placed on a shelf - felt like the Hughes brothers were channelling a televangelist, which was deeply irritating. It wouldn't surprise me if the film attracts flak for focussing on Christianity over all over religions. I don't think it would deserve it, but it wouldn't surprise me. Again, it's the final scene more than anything. The Bible is placed next to copies of several other religious texts, but it is bigger and rather more impressive than those copies. It may not have been the intention, but it felt like a conclusion saying "Christianity beats these religions hands down. Forget them." I'd have preferred them not to mention other religions at all; it's an American film, and America is a predominantly Christian country. Why not focus on Christianity? The acknowledgement felt condescending though.

Ultimately, I can't really recommend 'Eli'. It annoyed me more than anything else, and when you find yourself summarising the story by referencing other films, you have to worry. Disappointing.

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