World Ends, Word Goes on in "The Book of Eli"
- Monday, January 18, 2010
Release Date: January 15, 2010
Rating: R (for some brutal violence and language)
Genre: Action, Drama
Run Time: 118 min.
Director: Albert and Allen Hughes
Actors: Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis, Gary Oldman, Malcom McDowell, Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour, Jennifer Beals, Tom Waits
""The days are coming," declares the Sovereign Lord, "when I will send a famine through the land-- not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord. "—Amos 8:11
"At any time, and most in a time of trouble, a famine of the word of God is the heaviest judgment. … The most amiable and zealous would perish, for want of the water of life, which Christ only can bestow."—From Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on Amos 8
End-of-the-world scenarios are all the rage at the movies. Last year, the mindless popcorn flick 2012 was a big hit, while an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a father-son survival tale set among cannibals and killers after an unspecified catastrophe, failed to find a sizable audience.
The Book of Eli continues the string of apocalyptic tales. It has style, it has action, but it also has something that sets it apart from even the best mindless action films. It has a point: The Word of God can be used for both good or ill, but a world without the Word is a hopeless place.
The film gives audiences a bit more to chew on than the standard action blockbuster. It suggests that a ruined civilization can be rebuilt one of two ways: under the thumb of a power-hungry tyrant who preaches his own distorted version of Scripture, or by getting the Word of God into the hands of others.
Eli (Denzel Washington) is a wandering man on a mission. Following a cataclysmic event decades ago that led to mass Bible-burning—the details behind the actions are left vague, but we're told that some survivors blamed religion—a voice directed Eli to one of the last remaining copies of the King James Version of the Bible. The voice told him to go West, and 30 years later, he's still on his journey.
Shoes are a necessity—Eli removes the shoes from a corpse early in the film—but so is food. He survives by bow hunting, and any kind of meat will do (a hairless cat is Eli's first victim in the film).
Eli also has divine help. The voice that spoke to him years earlier promised to protect him, and one way that protection manifests itself is through Eli's deadly accuracy with a sword. His first encounter with a gang of cannibalistic thugs is no contest: Eli cuts off one man's hand at the wrist, then kills the rest of the man's gang in quick succession.
It's one of many grisly scenes of killing in this violent, "R"-rated film. Christian viewers may see the violence, always in self-defense, as justified given the film's grim survival scenario, but directors Albert and Allen Hughes, known for violent films like Dead Presidents, From Hell, give the scenes an aggressive style designed to satisfy viewers' bloodlust.
Eli's nemesis is Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the leader of a dusty town who reads any book his men can acquire for him. But there's one book he wants most of all—a Bible. He remembers the days before the event that ended civilization as we know it, and the book's power over those who believe in its message. He wants to build his town, then expand his empire by preaching his own version of what the book contains. The distorted message won't matter to the illiterate populace, who won't be able to challenge Carnegie's deliberate misinterpretation of Scripture.
The Book of Eli boils down to a confrontation between these two men—one of whom wants the Bible for his own purposes, and one who wants it to complete a divine mission. There's a woman, Solara (Mila Kunis), who comes to believe in Eli's mission, and another (played by Jennifer Beals) whose allegiance to Carnegie is challenged by Eli's arrival. But their characters aren't well developed.
The film's view of revelation may upset some Christians and hearten others, depending on their views of extra-Biblical revelation. While the Bible is still available, it is no longer widely available. Eli knows his Bible; he reads it every day. But his mission isn't laid out in Scripture. It comes to him directly, through a voice that only he can hear. Without the voice, Eli never would have found the book. He never questions the mission he's been given, although it's not clear until late in the film why he's been told to do what he does. He walks by faith, not by sight, and his faith is ultimately rewarded.
The Hughes brothers' film isn't perfect even by action-movie standards. It has a few long lulls, and its female characters are largely inconsequential. What elevates the film from the mediocrity is a twist ending that is genuinely surprising, and the Bible's centrality to the film's message of hope and redemption for mankind.
The Book of Eli isn't a particularly adult film, but it's also not for kids. It's rough going in spots, with brutal killings and suggestions of sexual violence. Despite those harsher elements, the film is edifying in showing God's divine power—through protection of those He loves, but also through the preservation and propagation of his revelation. It's a Hollywood blockbuster that builds up, rather than tears down. Let's hope it's the start of a trend.
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