Wednesday, July 21, 2010

[Movie Review] The Book of Eli

I should have seen this in the theatre. I wanted to - badly. I'd seen the previews and was convinced I'd enjoy it. But, then the reviews came out, and a lot of the ones I saw weren't very flattering. They took issue with the story, the action, the message, whatever. In fact, if you look at a review-aggregator like Rotten Tomatoes, you'll find the reviews are split pretty evenly between positive and negative. People love it or hate it, I guess.

We finally got to watch it this week - we had it as soon as it was available from Netflix. It's a terrific movie.

The Book of Eli is a post-apocalyptic western samurai movie. It's got the lone wanderer (Denzel Washington) - a blademaster and gunslinger who's traveling west on a vague mission, carrying a book. The wanderer meets the local tyrant, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who rules a small "wild-west" town, sending out raiding parties in search of a book that he believes will increase his power. The tyrant recognizes the wanderer's skills and tries to recruit him, introducing him to his blind slave-girl Claudia (Jennifer Beals) and ordering her daughter Solara (Mila Kunis) to seduce him as an enticement to stay in the town. Solace discovers the book, innocently informs the tyrant, and then joins the wanderer on the road. Carnegie, desperate for the power he believes the book could give him, sets off in pursuit with a squad of heavily-armed desperadoes in armored cars.

I enjoy post-apocalyptic worlds. The desperation of those living in the shadow of civilization, surviving off of its scraps, is fascinating to me. They're forced to return to the "old ways" of cooking over campfires and hunting with bows, all while surrounded by the shattered remnants of the riches and luxurious excesses that we take for granted today. Which of us, we who have time to read (and write) blogs on our broadband-connected computers rather than toiling in the fields from before sunup till after sundown isn't living like a prince compared to 99.99% of the population of the Earth just a few hundred years ago?

I also like the "lone wanderer" figure, whether it's Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone movie or Roland from Stephen King's Dark Tower series or the unnamed protagonist from the Fallout games. This guy is alone against the world, yet he manages to hold his own through skill, discipline, and steely-eyed courage. He refuses to give up - even manages to win - when the rest of us would curl up in weeping, thumb-sucking balls in the corner. The bad guys always have all the advantages - men, weapons, supplies, you name it - yet they just can't... quite... kill... the hero.

And so it is with The Book of Eli. It's a movie about the power of faith in something larger than yourself, but it's not a particularly religious movie and certainly isn't pedantic. It's a movie about the little guy somehow overcoming impossible odds because he's better than the rest and because he keeps the faith even when everything is bleakest. It's a film where you can see yourself as you'd be if you had to live off the ruins of modern society. Would you be the man driven by faith to spend thirty years walking from one side of the blasted continent to the other? Or would you be one of the cannibals, subsisting on the flesh of your fellows?

Speaking of which, there's one other set of notable characters who take a fine turn in the film - that of the old couple George and Martha. Their scene isn't uproarious, but is one of the funnier in the films, made more remarkable by the casting. Old George is played by none other than Harry Potter's Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), while Martha is portrayed by Frances de la Tour, who played Madame Maxime, the giant-sized headmistress of one of the rival schools of wizardry in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The Book of Eli has the ideal combination of action, memorable characters, message and gritty setting. It's a terrific story (by long-time computer game journalist Gary Whitta), told through superb acting and beautiful cinematography. I regret missing it on the big screen, but enjoyed it immensely on my medium-sized one. I rate The Book of Eli an A and recommend it highly.

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