Saw The Book of Eli over the weekend. This was not, in my opinion, a bad movie, so much as it was a movie that failed to be good in virtually every conceivable way. It was not preachy the way I expected it to be, and good for it for that, but was instead preachy in an entirely different and even more ridiculous way, all of which I will reveal after the jump.
Before I do, however, I must tell you: THERE IS A MAJOR SPOILER THAT I WILL REVEAL. It is an extremely big spoiler, and if you want to watch the movie without knowing in it DO NOT KEEP READING.
I AM SERIOUS.
Eli (Denzel Washington) is blind. He has apparently been blind from the beginning.
[UPDATE! Because people want to know, “How did Eli get out of the room?” I will tell you that you will not find that answer in this post because, quite frankly, I have NO FUCKING IDEA. God, maybe?]
The blind thing is saved for a last-second twist — Carnegie (Gary Oldman) gets the Bible, only to discover that it’s in Braille and he can’t read it, and his blind prostitute won’t read it for him — rather than used a major point of the story, by giving Eli a kind of Blind Master Zatoichi feel, or else as the foundation for the idea that Eli’s survival across the wasteland was a minor miracle.
It also doesn’t answer the one question that it could answer: how did this Bible survive if, after the last war, everyone burned all the Bibles? You might think, “Aha! It’s in Braille, so no one knew it was a Bible! God works through miraculous coincidence!”
Hah, no. The book’s in Braille, but it’s got a huge cross and the words “Holy Bible” on the cover. The issue of Eli’s blindness does raise some further questions, though. Yes, it’s true that he had unusually acute senses of smell and hearing, and there was that one scene where Solara (Mila Kunis) claimed that the room was really bright, so hey, look, the evidence was there for it all along!
This begins to get into the major problem with The Book of Eli, so let me digress a second first. My fear with this movie was that it would suggest that the Bible is special — an actual divine conduit that is necessary for the reconstruction of civilization. If you read this interview with the Hughes brothers, he seems to suggest that, in the context of the world, yes, that’s exactly what it is.
This was troublesome to me, because of what I already know about human nature. Human beings create religion. Religion creates the Bible. Also: other Bibles. Wherever there are people, they create their own religious beliefs, and then they codify them according to how they see fit. This is the way human beings have worked, basically forever. (Annalee describes this more succinctly in this hilarious review.)
Now, Allen Hughes would have you just ignore that, with a kind of hand-waving, “You’re looking for logic where there is no logic” dodge, but it’s true and important. Human nature is the one thing Science Fiction doesn’t change — it’s really a genre that should be understood as exploring the recesses of human nature in a set of conditions conjured up by the imagination.
Gary Oldman’s obsession with getting the Bible rings false — he claims that he needs its magic words to build a bigger city, to control the weak and desperate, &c. But he’s already doing all that stuff. He’s got guys with guns and rocket launchers and they’re already doing everything he tells them. He knows where the only fresh water left in the world is (unless you drive for a day to the west; more on that later), he’s the only one who can read. He is, in other words, doing fine. Why does he risk all of that so he can get his hands on a book that doesn’t have any intuitive value in his situation?
This rings false but isn’t so bad; Gary Oldman’s monomania is a kind of obsession, anyway, and it’s not essential that the Bible have actual magic powers, only that Gary Oldman believes it has actual magic powers in context. In a better movie (again, more on this later), we’d probably understand Gary Oldman’s motivation as a personal need for spiritual redemption — that he’s consumed by guilt for the terrible things he’s done to build his city and, because of his own experience with religion growing up, he thinks the Bible is the only way he can get forgiveness. This creates an ironic juxtaposition between his role…okay, never mind, later, I’ll talk about that later.
The Book of Eli’s Christian proselytizing isn’t that bad on that level. Where it’s fucking RIDICULOUS is that, in the post-apocalyptic world of Eli, faith in God gives you magic powers. And not some vague, abstract shit like “If I knew the words from the Bible I could manipulate the weak.” If you believe in God, The Book of Eli tells us, God will make you a samurai warrior. Also, BULLETS WILL NEVER HARM YOU (unless it’s dramatically interesting) — you could stand in the middle of the street in broad daylight with twenty guys shooting guns at you, and no bullets will touch you at all. Even James Bond has to find cover when that happens. Why? Because he’s Anglican, I assume. When Ray Stevenson points a gun at your face and he is only ten feet away, God will intervene on your behalf, causing Ray Stevenson to put his gun down for no apparent reason.
If you are blind and you believe in God, he’ll guide you across the country (in a roundabout way, we must assume; Forrest Gump ran across the USA five times in three and a half years — but it takes Eli thirty to get from one end to the other). That’s, as I said, a kind of minor miracle, unlikely but plausible. Except, God will do more than that. He will give you the power to shoot in the face twenty men who are twenty yards away like it’s nothing. He will give you the power to shoot a nuclear cat with your bow and arrow, even though you’re wearing a gas mask over your ears and it’s a CAT for fuck’s sake, how much noise can it be making? If you’re blind and you believe in God, don’t worry — God will permit you to shoot a vulture out of the sky with your bow and arrow.
Also, if you’re Solara (Mila Kunis) and you’re friends with someone who believes in God, it’s possible that he’ll unlock the door that keeps you trapped in that one room. It’s not clear how she got out of there, but at this point, Divine Intervention seems pretty plausible.
Obviously, Eli doing all of these amazing, LONG-RANGE activities early in the movie neutralizes any evidence we might have that suggest that he’s blind. There’s no way to look back at it and say, “Oh, yes! I guess he WAS blind that whole time, because he had good hearing and that one scene where he’s reading and Mila Kunis says the room is too bright!” First of all, we just saw him shoot twenty guys in the head. Second of all, no, the room was NOT especially bright. And even if it was, it’s not very unusual for a man trying to read a book to turn the lights up in the room. If the room had been unusually DARK, that would have been another story.
There’s a lot to this movie that falls under the Hughes’ hand-waving — things that don’t make sense, but we’re supposed to ignore in favor of the movie’s theme (which is, again: believe in God, and he will make you a samurai). This is a shame, because all of these problems are actually great opportunities to make a good movie. This is what really bothers me about The Book of Eli — there was a good movie in this (yeah, it was called Road Warrior, except it was about gasoline instead of the Bible). Okay. Two good movies (also Six-String Samurai, with Rock and Roll instead of religion).
There were a lot of good movies in this, and the Hughes brothers didn’t make any of them. Instead, they made a movie with a clumsy, amateurish scripts full of timelines that don’t add up, motivations that aren’t explained, plot movements that literally contradict each other. It’s filmed in the same washed-out sepia tone wasteland that Road Warrior was shot in — it looks neat, I guess, but it’s not like it’s anything new. And it’s boring. You know the two fights you see in the trailer and making of featurette? Those are the only fights in the movie. The Book of Eli is 90% Denzel Washington walking around in the desert. Gary Oldman’s scenery chewing lunatic is a good time, sure, and Denzel Washington and Tom Waits have a scene together that’s pretty funny, but for the most part every conversation in The Book of Eli is either:
Give me the book.
Let me come with you.
Back up before I chop you in the neck.
::chops in neck::
Now. Holland believes that it’s futile to worry about what a movie could have been, when clearly this is the movie that we’ve got. I do not wholeheartedly agree — I believe that a careful study of structure and plot can yield a bounty of information about how to make better future movies.
I have now begun my career as a freelance film dramaturg, committed to an almost religious belief that every movie, even those that are meant to be mindlessly entertaining, should be good. Therefore, using the power of science, I will invent FIVE new The Book of Eli films that would have been good movies, instead of this one. Here we go.
1. Eli is Blind Master Zatoichi
As I said earlier, saving Eli’s blindness for a twist ending doesn’t answer any questions, it raises further questions, and is all-in-all vestigial to the film itself. Gary Oldman gets a hold of the Bible at the end, discovers he can’t read it, YES, true. But also, he’s over-extended his forces, so his town has turned into a violent riot (the Bible, of course, is notoriously great at preventing violent riots). Also, he’s dying from gangrene.
What is the point of saving the blindness for the last minute? Why not make it obvious early on? This is a great opportunity, actually, to show how Eli could have survived in the wasteland, buoyed by his faith, yes, but not made impervious. Eli travels at night (unlike everyone else, who need the sun to see). In the movie that was made, Eli encounters hijackers early on — this is plainly nonsense, of course; there are five guys, how many travelers really come through the dead nuclear highway? But accepting that, why do they demand Eli empty out his satchel if they’re just going to kill him and eat him anyway? Why would they talk to him, instead of just jumping out and killing him?
It’s amateurish writing; a plainly-forced encounter to give Eli the opportunity to act like a stone-cold motherfucker.
If Eli were Blind Master Zatoichi, though, what would happen? Maybe the hijackers would decide to fuck around with him first, because they think it’s funny that he’s a blind guy wandering the desert. Then think how surprised they’d be when he chops the shit out of them. Alternately, when Eli detects the hijackers, he could immediately run and hide under cover — the hijackers would, befuddled, come out looking for him, and Eli could ambush and murder them all one by one.
Not as impressive a fight scene, but you need to pace yourself with shit like this. You should be filling the rest of the movie up with awesome fights, AND you need to be setting up a modus operandi for Eli — not just a way for him to fight, but a way for him to succeed. A way in which Eli, determined by his faith, is able to use the hardships that he suffers as a kind of blessing — a power in a world which is so harsh that the natural assumption is that anyone who suffers such disadvantages has no chance for survival.
Anyway, the good thing about this is that it lets us play around a little with the book, some more. Above all, the nature of the book is more interesting: a blind man carrying a book that he knows is valuable, but that he cannot read — that is some old-timey act of faith right there. So what is the book?
2. The Book is Nonsense
Maybe it’s the Wizard of Oz, maybe it’s a fat volume about the history of wetlands development in New Jersey. The less relevant it is to anything, the better. Why? Look at the opportunities it gives you: firstly, now the movie’s description of faith is not tied up in the words of the book, but in the man himself. Faith is an act, not something that you read about and then just have. Secondly, look at the ironies: Eli doesn’t know the book is meaningless, does that abrogate his faith? No! Faith is independent of it’s object! Gary Oldman sacrifices everything for the book — oh, irony! Gary Oldman misunderstands the nature of faith. Like the author of the movie we saw (rather than the movie we should have seen), Gary Oldman believes that faith comes from the book. By making it unavailable to him, the filmmakers implied that it really DID have the power that he wanted, he just couldn’t access it. But in this new movie, we see that it is the willing act of goodness that is the power, not the book itself!
So, how does it end? In the movie that they made, Eli has memorized the Bible. He has been shot, and Mila Kunis takes him west to Alcatraz, where Malcolm MacDowell has a printing press and a library — a library which is now complete, because Eli dictates the Bible to him. Malcolm MacDowell then puts the Bible on a bookshelf, next to the Torah and the Quran. Obviously a mistake, since in this world we know that Christians have literal magic powers.
Whatever. What a waste of an opportunity! If the book had been nonsense, Eli could have realized that it was not the book itself that was the mission, but the good that he could do in service to the mission — namely, rescuing Mila Kunis from her life of sexual slavery. He, obviously, mortally wounded, should have died on the shores of the bay (like Moses at the river Jordan), while Mila Kunis rowed on a rowboat out to Alcatraz, which was green and beautiful, BUT WE NEVER FIND OUT WHAT WAS THERE.
It would have shaved about thirty minutes off of the movie, all of which was a painfully long denouement.
3. The Book is Science
I know, I know — this isn’t a science fiction movie for atheists, it’s a science fiction movie for Christians. But just hear me out here.
Eli is tormented by the nature of his mission — we see early on, in the movie that was made, that he’ll ignore a woman being raped in order to stay on his path. He is a good man, but he believes that his vision from God is telling him to ignore those instincts. When Eli gets to Gary Oldman’s town, he’s just interested in leaving, despite the myriad injustices that surround him. He is hurt to have to ignore them, but he does, because he wants to keep on with the book (this is actually my movie; in the movie that was made, the town is kind of shitty, but it doesn’t seem endemically unjust, you know?).
So, if it’s science, why does Gary Oldman want it? Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he really just wants Denzel Washington. This town has survived for thirty years here — Gary Oldman has to have a whole operation here. There should be (there wasn’t) farming going on, guys trying to salvage gas from the cars and metal and copper from ruined buildings. Gary Oldman needs men, healthy men (even blind ones) to work his operation. He doesn’t want to let Denzel Washington leave, and once Denzel wants to go, Gary Oldman sees it as a challenge to his authority which must remain absolute if he is going to rule.
The climactic fight, rather than happening at cannibal Michael Gambon’s farmhouse, happens in the town itself, as Eli is drawn into a pitched battle that he wants no part of, and he considers himself a failure for engaging in. He wins, with the help of some of the townspeople (sure!), but is mortally wounded. Dying, he, Mila Kunis, and Tom Waits’ engineer discover that the book is really just a collection of texts about irrigation, farming, physics, chemistry. We find out that this town WAS Eli’s mission, the entire time! He didn’t know it only because he was so committed to it that his zeal blinded him to the practical application of his faith!
But maybe you still want God involved, fine.
4. The Book is the Bible
“Wait,” you’re thinking, “that’s the movie that we actually got!” Hang on a second. Let’s say the book is the Bible, and Eli believes it has to be taken west. Gary Oldman wants it — not to have, but to destroy. See, he’s set himself up as the God of these people, and he believes that any other kind of religion will be a poison to his tyrannous rule. Eli doesn’t care about these people, he just wants to get along with his book, but Gary Oldman isn’t having it.
Mila Kunis tries to convince him to stay and help the people, but Eli isn’t having it — he’s on mission, he’s got a mission, &c. The climactic fight takes place in the town, as in scenario 3. Eli is mortally wounded, as is Gary Oldman. Now we discover the twist — Eli doesn’t have the book anymore. In a supreme act of both faith and of goodness, he has given the book to Mila Kunis, who fled with it while Eli fucked up Gary Oldman’s guys. Gary Oldman dies knowing that his town is going to collapse into rubble because of his hubris, SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS, motherfuckers. Eli dies believing his book will be safe wherever it has to go.
Mila Kunis takes the book to Alcatraz, as before, but we never find out what’s there. This also let’s us avoid the scene at the very end of the movie where tiny little itty-bitty Mila Kunis straps on Denzel Washington’s sword and puts on badass sunglasses and is all, “Now I’m going to go back into the desert and fuck some sons of bitches UP.”
There’s no real question that, if you’re going to include Alcatraz as the ultimate goal, that we never should have found out what was there. Remember how awesome the ending of Children of Men was? Yeah.
5. The Book is Something New
This one deviates the farthest from what we got, but I want to explore it a little. Let’s accept that faith in God can make you a powerful samurai in this world. Well, what if you’re Jewish? Will God make you a samurai then? What if you’re Hindu? Instead, God should grant everyone a different power: Christians are samurai, Hindus all know karate, Jews are good shots with a bow and arrow.
I’m only half-joking. Let’s imagine that this future nuclear world is now abundant with religion — mostly with misunderstood imperatives and practices from the dimly-remembered past, and all modified to be of practical, violent merit in the post-apocalyptic cannibal wasteland. Eli’s book is a book about peace and love — a new testament to the power of good, brought into a world of rigid laws and warrior cults. Probably, it was dictated to him by a little girl, who spoke it as she lay dying.
Gary Oldman is the priest-king of the warrior cults of the desert, and wants to destroy Eli and his book, but misunderstands the danger. He thinks that ELI is the problem, that he’s a trouble-maker and a rabble-rouser, and doesn’t realize the dangerous power of the message of the book. There’s a climactic battle, Eli is killed, Gary Oldman barely regains power — the movie ends with Mila Kunis having preserved the book, ready to undermine society with it’s secret message.
This is actually a great concept to use with Eli as, perhaps, a reformed soldier or cult-warrior. He is not a good man driven to ignore the good by the mission that he’s on — he is, instead, a bad man driven to do good by the message he’s carrying. He heard it, though can’t read it, and it moved him. Now, he feels guilty when he has to kill someone, and still recognizes that he is the best at it. He believes the message of his book will create a world in which he is irrelevant, and he is looking forward to that. He is trying to avoid killing or harming people; when Mila Kunis tells him he has to fight Gary Oldman, he does not want to, wants to instead just live a quiet, danger-free life. (This movie is kind of like Shane, actually, which was also a better movie.)
But he’s forced into it by fate and circumstance, giving up his own chance at redemption (the goodness of the book) to preserve redemption for the people of the town. This is actually the MOST Christian of all the scenarios, and look — I didn’t even use the Bible for it!
As you can see, it was possible to make at least five better movies that not only preserved the basic theme of The Book of Eli (which, I think is something like, “Faith is good,” or “God will give you powers”) and actually expanded on those themes, giving them ironic depth and ambiguity. And none of it matters at all! According to the ancient law “He who selleth unto Christians Christ shall never want for fortune”, the movie will be successful. Who cares if a movie is good, as long as it’s successful? I do, but I’m probably the only one.