The world has ended. Again. Marauding gangs haunt the ashen wastelands of America, preying on innocent passersby. The few survivors have clumped together into ramshackle settlements that are beginning to crumble from within. Into this world steps machete-wielding road warrior Eli – a man on a mission from God.
At first it sounds wholly derivative…and then, entirely incongruous. Postapocalyptic films and literature in recent years have, for the most part, remained devoid of overt spirituality. Books like “The City of Ember” and “The Road”, while they may acknowledge a dim sense of spirituality or hope, generally steer clear of explicit Christian references. But Denzel Washington’s latest film, “The Book of Eli” unapologetically confronts issues of faith, sacrifice, and, most notably, the Bible.
That’s right – the Bible is the titular “Book.” And without ever veering toward the “preachy”, directors Albert and Allen Hughes seamlessly develop the concept into a dark, emotional masterpiece.
As the film opens, Eli is traveling west across a burned-out America, carrying a machete, a pistol, a canteen…and the last known Bible on earth. He is taking the Book to a place where it will be “safe” – where its message can be finally be shared with the world. But Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the power-hungry dictator of a decrepit survivor’s colony, is also interested in Eli’s Book – for very different reasons. Carnegie believes that the power of the Bible’s words will give him an effective means of manipulating his citizenry…in effect, he hopes to twist the words of Scripture to crush his opposition.
Carnegie initially tries to lure Eli into complacency, distracting him from his divine mission. He sends a young girl, Solara (Mila Kunis), to Eli’s room in an attempt to seduce him. (He turns her down, of course). But during their brief interlude, Eli introduces Solara to the concept of prayer – a concept that quickly draws Carnegie’s attention. From then on, Carnegie begins an insane quest to capture the Book at all costs – even if it means killing dozens of other people in the process.
It’s a tight, fast-paced plot that effectively balances both its spiritual underpinnings and intense action sequences. But is it worth watching?
First, the good:
I have never seen another secular, mass-market film with such a reverence for the Word of God. Scenes in which Eli defends the Book with his life are extremely convicting as a Christian, and thought-provoking for nonbelievers. Even better, through several memorable scenes, Eli begins to show Solara the power of the Bible – not as a tool for conquest, but as a handbook for living. Psalms and Bible verses are quoted throughout the movie, and Christian imagery and symbolism are present in many scenes.
For that matter, Eli is something of a modern-day Elijah. His dangerous (and often self-sacrificial) mission, inspired by God and rooted in a deep-seated personal faith, is certainly inspiring. He obviously struggles with his own personal failings, but, for the most part, acts according to the Book he defends so vehemently.
That “defense” is, unfortunately, the source of most of the negative elements in this film.
This is a violent movie – a VERY violent movie. Within the first ten minutes, Eli dismembers, stabs, and decapitates six attacking thugs with his trusty machete – and things only ratchet up from there. (Plenty of blood and gore accompany all the killings). It’s implied that the roving gangs rape, murder, and then cannibalize their victims – horrific imagery that’s often depicted onscreen (along with Eli’s righteous revenge). There’s a fair amount of language as well, including about 10 uses of the f-word. This postapocalyptic universe is frighteningly visceral, and viewers see it in all its ugliness.
It’s left unclear whether Eli is really acting in a “Christian” way by brutally killing his enemies. To his credit, he does attempt to warn any would-be ambushers (“Don’t touch me again if you want to keep that hand!”), but quickly proceeds to dispatch anyone who threatens him. Whether or not these actions (albeit in self-defense) are consistent with “Christian love” is certainly a matter for debate.
But through all the nightmare and horror, light still shines. The Word of God is “living and active,” and this film effectively portrays its power in an ever-darkening world.
Should you see it?
I would not recommend “The Book of Eli” for any young or sensitive viewers. There’s just too much nightmarish material onscreen – from bloodthirsty motorcycle gangs to towns filled with decaying corpses. I would, however, recommend it for older teens and adults interested in seeing one of the most compelling portrayals of Christian faith in modern secular cinema.
A compelling, thought-provoking postapocalyptic epic.
Normalized Score: 8.7
WARNING: “The Book of Eli” is rated R for brutal violence and language. This film is intense, dark, and frequently disturbing. NOT recommended for viewers under 17.