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The Book of Eli

It’s the Post-Apocalypse (Again)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

From a parched, barren post-apocalyptic world (actually New Mexico), a wanderer, Eli (Denzel Washington in action hero/martyr mode) emerges. He’s the Man With One Name in The Book of Eli, the Hughes Brothers’ (American Pimp, Dead Presidents, Menace 2 Society) first narrative film in nine years.

Eli is a righteous man on a righteous, albeit bloody, path, following a voice in his head to deliver a certain book of supreme Judaic-Christian importance to someone unknown out West — a depopulated, ruined San Francisco, as we learn in the film’s final scenes. Life in this post-apocalyptic, Hobbesian wasteland is nasty, brutish, and short, but Eli’s book offers the possibility of hope and renewal if used properly, and endless violence and degradation if it isn’t.

Eli arrives in an unnamed junkyard town, looking for water and a charge for his iPod (a deft bit of product placement for Apple). In the unnamed town, the Hughes Brothers and their screenwriter Gary Whitta take their cues from the Mad Max/Road Warrior universe, specifically the Barter-Town that featured prominently in the third and last entry in the series, Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

Everyone has only a first name or is identified solely by what they do (Mad Max/Road Warrior-style). Surnames disappeared in the apocalyptic war that destroyed most of the planet. In the town, Eli quickly runs afoul of the local strongman, Carnegie (Gary Oldman).

The Hughes Brothers introduce Carnegie as a reader, like Eli, but he’s not reading a religious tome or even pulp fiction. He’s reading a Mussolini biography, presumably to glean advice on running his dictatorship smoothly. He’s a small man with big dreams, hoping to expand his control over other nearby towns, but he also realizes his limitations: He can’t become a demagogue without the words necessary to inspire fear. At first, Carnegie tries to get Eli to join his gang, but after he discovers that Eli is carrying the book Carnegie has been coveting for years, he attempts to kill him and take the book.

True to the self-reliant hero archetype, Eli travels the broken, untended highways alone. He’s alive due to superhuman-level survival skills, but becomes enmeshed in the town’s future when Solara (Mila Kunis), the daughter of Carnegie’s woman, Claudia (Jennifer Beals), follows him, hoping for protection from Carnegie and Carnegie’s chief henchmen, Redridge (Ray Stevenson). A showdown, of course, is inevitable, pitting Carnegie and his worldview that depends on fear against Eli and his worldview that depends on hope and faith (compassion comes later, through the expected third-act character turn). Eli is the link between the past and the future.

Like Cormac McCarthy in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road, and the film adaptation released two months ago, the Hughes Brothers sketch out a few broad strokes of their post-apocalyptic world and stop there. What we know depends almost entirely on what Eli shares with us via occasional voice-over narration or in conversations with Solara. Details about the global catastrophe that ended life as we know it are few and far between.

Eli mentions something called the “flash” — presumably nuclear war — thirty winters ago. Whatever it was, the survivors saw religion, or rather religious extremism, as one of, if not the cause, for the war and attempted to destroy all traces of religion, presumably in the hope of saving future generations from past mistakes.

Of course, The Book of Eli diverges significantly from The Road, both narratively and thematically. It’s more action-oriented than The Road, punctuated by violent, Western-style standoffs. The main character is alone when we first meet him (as opposed to protecting his son), and religion, absent from McCarthy’s novel and John Hillcoat’s adaptation, provides The Book of Eli with a major plot point and its themes.

If McCarthy saw religion as useless in a post-apocalyptic world, the Hughes Brothers and Whitta see religious belief as essential for survival. But both share a faith, however tenuous, in a future with humanity. With The Book of Eli, It just takes a lot of R-rated violence to get there.