A Few Observations about “The Book of Eli”

Denzel stars in the post-apocalyptic movie, “The Book of Eli” (image source: Wikimedia Commons)


Last night, Derek and I finally found time to watch the post-apocalyptic film, The Book of Eli. It’s the second time in the last year that we’ve received the DVD from Netflix. The first time around, the disc sat collecting dust for about a month before we finally sent it back unviewed. This time, the disc only had to wait for two weeks before we found a mutual two-hour window where we could both watch. The only reason we put Eli on our queue is due to so many friends and listeners telling us that this film is important.

Is it? Honestly, I’m still not sure. In order to offer my opinion, I’ll be revealing some of Eli’s secrets, so  fair warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

The setting of the film is thirty years after a worldwide, nuclear war has ‘opened a hole in the sky’ that allowed the sun to toast everyone (referred to as ‘the flash’). We’ll call it ‘the event’. The world’s few survivors are mainly under thirty. Now–let’s stop there for a moment. Whenever I watch a movie, I want every detail to match the story. I want the plot to make sense. If a solar event fried nearly everyone as Eli later explains, then who gave birth to all the under thirties in the film? Also, if water is such a precious commodity, then why does everyone’s hair look so clean and fluffy (particularly the women). In a world where bathing is no longer an option, wouldn’t it make sense to shave your head? All right, small points, but these things detract from my immersion in a film’s storyline.

The mood of Eli is appropriately gritty, nearly lifeless, and apparently hopeless. Gary Whitta’s screenplay reveals his own past of video games as one can imagine Eli as a long-play, multi-level first person shooter. In fact, violence dominates nearly every moment, lurking in the shadows even during quiet moments.

The plot revolves around Denzel Washington’s enigmatic character, whom we later come to know as ‘Eli’. Eli has spent thirty years walking westward because a ‘voice’ spoke to him and commanded him to take a certain, leather-bound book to a place in the West. Eli has skills that seem superhuman. He has keen senses and supernatural abilities in battle–and boy, does he battle. Naturally, these skills and Eli’s commitment are put to the test in a very uncivilized town run by local hood, Carnegie (played by Gary Oldman, who seems to be channeling Jack Nicholson). Carnegie is well-named, because he is collecting books. (Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie is best known as a builder of small town libraries all across the Midwest). In fact, it is one particular book that he most desires–a Bible. A book of power. A book he plans to use to control people.

Eli’s copy is the only remaining Bible in the world. Again, it is Eli’s telling of the Event that fills in the backstory. All Bibles were destroyed after the war–in fact, he tells the young, naive, and beautifully coifed Solara (whose name means ‘sun’) that some said the Bible was the cause of the war. Yes, that tidbit had my brain whirring for the remainder of the film. Anyway, Carnegie lusts after the Bible carried by Eli, so he tries to convince Eli to join his gang. He uses flattery, intimidation, and even sex (Solara is sent to ‘visit’ Eli the Walker in his room, but Eli prays with her instead). Finally, Carnegie determines to steal the book.

Violence ensues, and lots of Carnegie’s men end up dead.

A long chase begins, and Eli is forced to take on the companionship of Solara, a girl who can’t read but who has perfect teeth, great skin, and a keen fashion sense (and that fluffy hair). The pair meet up with George and Martha (either a nod to Washington or to ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’)–I’d guess the latter, since this odd couple are tea-drinking cannibals. George proudly shows Eli and Solara their graveyard out back (‘it only seemed decent to bury ’em”). Just as Eli and Solara are making their escape (again, Eli’s super abilities save the day), Carnegie and his gang roll up in their battle jitneys (Tom Waite plays ‘the engineer’, so the vehicles must surely be battle jitneys).

Even though Eli has promised Solara that the two of them would survive, Eli is shot and left for dead. However, Solara uses skills she’s learned from the ‘walker’ to make her escape and returns for him. Carnegie, whom Eli shot in the leg before leaving town, exults over his triumph in stealing the book from the walker Eli, but his triumph ends in tragedy. The book is in Braille.

Eli and Solara survive (as promised), and the pair end their journey in San Francisco, or rather just west of there–on a rocky island. Here they find the polar opposite of Carnegie in the gentle and immensely literate Lombardi (played by Malcolm McDowell) who loves books, but who wants to use them to rebuild civilization. The only book he lacks is a Bible. Eli asks for paper, lots of paper. As the film ends, Eli–who we now realize is blind–has memorized the entire King James Bible. As Eli dictates, Lombardi writes it all down, word for word. The island (yes, it’s Alcatraz) has its own printing press–a dinosaur that is handset and hand operated. But it works, and soon brand new copies of the Book are available for a new generation.

Eli dies shortly after fulfilling his mission. Solara then leaves, heading back to Carnegie’s town and her mother.

Overall, I’d give the film four stars out of five. As a Christian, I like the plot point that echoes God’s promise that heaven and earth would pass away but that His Word would never pass away. And I can even stretch the point that a blind man might be able to navigate across dangerous country, hunting his own food, finding water, and even killing bad guys with expert timing–but why would this man never be changed by the Word he is memorizing? If indeed Eli has internalized the Old and New Testaments, how is it that the TRUTH never reaches his heart? Though Eli prays, the prayers have no real connection to God in them. He never asks for salvation–he never mentions Jesus.

In his final days, Eli even remarks that he should have paid more attention to the message, but why did it take thirty years to sink in?

Bibles aren’t just meant to take up space in libraries. They aren’t tools to exert power over people. They are letters from our Creator–HIS WORDS–intended to change our hearts and lives. It is a miraculous, wonderful collection of sixty-six books that are interconnected by a scarlet thread–Christ’s blood. The Bible is a book of power, and it can make the blind ‘see’. It’s a shame Eli never saw that wonderful light.

1 Comment

  1. I’m glad to read your review of this movie. I enjoyed the movie although it is not my genre. I am not a fan of dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic fiction. The thing that breathed meaning into the book for me was the idea of him memorizing the Bible. As a young person we wre always challenged to memorize as much scripture as we could, because one day we will not have the bible. The emphasis of Eli memorizing the Bible also reminded me of the last part of Fahrenheit 451, where the main character fled the city and eventually met up with a community of dissidents, each of whom had memorized an author’s works.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the work.

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