Movie Review: The Book of Eli

I’ve wanted to see The Book of Eli for some time.  I’m a fan of post-apocalyptic films and on a long trans-Atlantic flight recently I had the opportunity to finally watch it.  Visually it’s impressive.  The fight scenes are brutal and sparse.   Characters are basic and two-dimensional, but the acting is fine if not exquisite.  I felt like Gary Oldman was re-channeling his Zorg character from The Fifth Element, but that’s fine as well.

My interest was piqued by the centrality of the Bible in the movie.  Denzel Washington’s character, Eli, possesses a very rare commodity – a Bible.  Most Bibles were wiped out after the nuclear holocaust, viewed widely as a leading contributor to the catastrophe.  Eli is on a mission to deliver the Bible to the West Coast for reasons not altogether clear even to himself.  Oldman’s character, Carnegie, is the tyrant of a small town and has been searching in vain for a Bible for some time.  Both men need and want the Bible, but their reasons differ.  Eli needs and wants the Bible to give it away, believing that in doing so, he is contributing to humanity.  Carnegie needs and wants the Bible as the ultimate tool of coercion and control of the masses.

Fascinating interplay, but I was disappointed but the very shallow treatment of Scripture in the movie.  Oh, don’t worry, there are a few verses scattered throughout .  But I mean the overall understanding of the importance of the Bible is lacking.  Both characters see the Bible as the single-most important book on earth.  But Carnegie sees it only as a means to control others, not understanding the source of this power which ultimately would undermine what he hoped to accomplish with it.  And Eli thinks the Bible basically says “to do more for others than you do for yourself”, without recognizing that such a message could hardly be responsible for nuclear annihlation.

The movie gets it right – the Bible is the single-most dangerous and subversive book in all of human history.  But it fails to really take this seriously and explore what that means and why.  It presents both Eli’s faith and Carnegie’s utilitarianism as relative equals.  One is nicer than the other, but both are viable responses to the book.  Both basically use the Bible for personal ends – one is more altruistic at first blush but Eli is just as ready to defend his faith – which he has barely any grasp of – and use of the book as Carnegie is.  Is that really altruism?

The Bible is dangerous and subversive to any institution of power or control as it removes all authority to God.  Both Eli and Carnegie can’t make sense of this beyond their own limited perceptions.  We are not free to do things as we see fit.  We are responsible to a Creator who will judge us, as Eli whispers to a thug he has just severely roughed up.  It’s phenomenal to me that the writers/directors could think that Eli could be wandering westward for 30 years, reading the Bible every single day, willing to defend it with his life, yet completely unaware of the true power and story it contains.  It’s baffling that someone could see the Bible as dangerous simply for saying be nice to each other.  The Bible goes well beyond that – to demonstrate that we can’t even do that one little thing, and that we are dying because of our failure, a failure we can’t overcome on our own no matter how much we might attempt to.

It’s an interesting post-apocalyptic movie but it had the potential to be so much more, and there were brief moments I thought it might succeed.

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