"Well that was unexpected."
I turned to Misty. "Really, you think so?" The question came out more condescending than I intended. "I mean yeah, I didn't think it was going to be that heavy-handed," I added lamely.
"It was just so..." Words failed her.
"Preachy?" I offered.
We got up to leave and I, clutching the railing, made my way down the stairs and out the door. "Christ my knee hurts." Not wanting anyone to think I was expressing any outward sympathy toward Gary Oldman, I explained further, "Was sitting cross-legged for too long."
"Do you want me to carry you?" Misty asked. I knew my blunder had been forgiven.
And then I forgot all about my knee, and Misty's disingenuous offer of help. Before us was a Shutter Island standee.
"I'm really looking forward to that," I said, needlessly pointing at the cardboard display.
"I'm looking forward to Dear John," came the reply.
We laughed. Relief washed over us, as cleansing giggles chased away any lingering cynicism brought on by The Book of Eli.
Set 30 years after after WWIII, the earth is a barren landscape in which people eke out a desperate existence. Denzel Washington is one of the few survivors from the world before who spends his days walking westward and his nights reading his Bible. Gary Oldman is another man from way back, and who's managed to build a small town around himself. Wanting very much to get his hands on a Bible, Gary Oldman sends out groups of illiterate raiders to bring him whatever books they can find. The stars align when Denzel arrives in Gary's town, but Denzel is disinterested in helping Gary unite and lead his people under the banner of God, and he moves on. Nonplussed, Gary pursues Denzel--nothing will stop him from getting his hands on that book.
Described elsewhere as having religious overtones, The Book of Eli is perhaps better understood as having apocalyptic undertones. The film suggests the nuclear war was religious in nature, that civilization was destroyed from the inside out; people's inability to work together and celebrate all faiths lead humanity to the brink of extinction. Yet, in spite of the all-encompassing blame game being played, and the token nod to Judaism and Islam in the last moments of the film, The Book of Eli is Christian to its core.
It's not so much insulting as it is tiresome. Though I suspect the film wanted to be more about faith in the abstract than about a single faith in particular, the movie is replete with Christian notions of belief, duty, and redemption. Denzel's character explains that after having survived the blast, he hears a voice in his head that leads him to one of the few remaining Bibles on Earth. Denzel follows the voice ever westward in order to bring the book, if not the word, of God to whomever waits at the end of road.
Thankfully, Denzel does not spend his days preaching to any and all he happens across. But Denzel's quiet piety sharply contrasts Gary Oldman's abusive rise to power, and the whole thing just a little too hard at being "being important". The most over-the-top moment comes when Denzel and his companion, Solara, stop over at George and Martha's place. The elderly couple have been living on the edge of nowhere forever and have taken to eating human meat. The subtext is not lost on the viewer: America is eating itself.
The film's unrelenting browbeating, its commentary on Christian values and American instincts, is reflected in the look and feel of the godless wasteland in which the action takes place. There's no sense of right and wrong, no sense of justice--keep your head down and stay the course. That's not to say the film is without action. Quite the opposite. The movie has some excellent violence which is a further representation of the world's decadence.
I would love nothing more than to close this review by comparing The Book of Eli to Mad Max because let's face it, pretty much all post-apocalyptic movies must bear the brunt of Mad Max, but the sad truth of the matter is that I've never actually seen Mad Max. So instead I'll make another comparison, one which immediately sprung to mind after limping out of the theatre: Small Gods.
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite books. Set on the Discworld, Small Gods follows the story of Brutha, an Omniastic monk, who gets caught up in a holy war led by the villainous and politically motivated Brother Vorbis. Brutha is a kindly fellow, not too bright, but well-meaning and he carries a turtle around with him because the turtle claims to be the manifestation of the Great God Om, an ancient Discworld diety. Brutha keeps Om's existence a secret, especially from Vorbis who is less interested in celebrating God than he is in persecuting others who don't following Omniaism. Small Gods wonderfully satirizes religious institutions and the wedding of religious and political business.
The Book of Eli, on the other hand, is not satirical. That's not a failing, but the film's heavy-handed attempts to deliver a message overshadow any kind of insightful commentary that might be made with respect to how faith functions as a motivator. There is another, more direct comparison I can make, but that would ruin the end of the book.