In Theaters: The Book of Eli

Movieline Score: 5

The Book of Eli presents an interesting case for the post-apocalyptic film -- a microgenre most recently bolstered by films like Children of Men, I Am Legend and The Road -- as the re-birth of the western, but beyond that it's pretty dumb. The latter film hews most closely to The Book of Eli (directed by the Hughes brothers, their first film after a nine-year hiatus) in structure, theme and palette: rather than using the distancing tropes of science fiction to envision a blighted future, both treat a ravaged United States like a new and yet recognizable frontier.

The dystopian setting now seems closer to our hearts and minds than that of the Western, which has all but ceased to fire the American imagination, although the story is essentially the same: a stranger traveling across a dangerous and unforgiving landscape enters a small town and must save himself and at least one of its inhabitants from the evil brewing there. Here, that traveler is named Eli and played by old poker face Denzel Washington in a role that has a faint but occasionally pointed resemblance to Clint Eastwood's Preacher in Pale Rider. In one scene that directly echoes Rider, Eli looks down on a group of godless men as they encircle and then begin to sexually attack a young woman; Eli hesitates, as Preacher did, telling himself the attack is not his concern. The reaction doesn't make much sense here, with Eli having already demonstrated his Bourne-worthy combat skills, although I imagine it's meant to suggest a man struggling with the obligations of faith and the instincts of self-preservation. The film's muddled theme -- religion (and specifically Christianity) is posited as both the cause of and the solution to all of humanity's problems -- necessitates several such uneducated guesses.

Was it God's wrath that brought "the flash" upon the United States? As with The Road, the "why" is implied to be beside the point, although later in the film "the book" Eli carries around with him is suggested as the reason for Earth's destruction. As a result they were all rounded up and burned, although a few copies of O Magazine and The Da Vinci Code managed to survive. Thirty-one years after the flash, what's left of the population is post-literate, post-religion, and half-blind. We meet Eli through an opening "day in the life" sequence that finds him bagging a stringy cat for dinner and listening to some Al Green on, like, a first generation iPod. The bleached out landscape is of the seared, desert-like variety you will recognize from the aforementioned Road, The Road Warrior, and B.C. cartoons, which often featured roads. Instead of heading east, like Viggo and that little kid, however, Eli is heading west, if for equally inscrutable reasons.

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