Review of The Book of Eli (2010)

Moving picture, 118 minutes

Seen in 2020.

Eli, the only man in good health, carries the last known copy of The Bible (ca. 110 CE) through the cannibal-infested post-apocalyptic Wild West, on a mission from Yahweh.

An unusually accurate biblical fan film. The name “Eli” is from the Books of Samuel (ca. 620–500 BCE). Denzel Washington’s Eli is not that character. As is to be expected from US Christian cinema, the main character corresponds more closely to Jesus, and especially the macho versions of Jesus: The scorpion-trampling desert survivor of Luke (ca. 80–110 CE) and the armed zealot of John (ca. 90–110 CE). He humbly kills a couple of dozen people and then says that the message of Christianity is to “do more for others than you do for yourself”. He doesn’t work miracles like the biblical wizards, but by the blessing of Yahweh he is almost immune to violence, which is helpful when he kills all those people. It is implied that he does all of this while blind, like The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003).

The killing is motivated by evil, both in the form of roving cannibal rapists with kuru, and in the form of “Carnegie”, an industrious town founder apparently named for Andrew Carnegie, who represents commerce and political power, and wants to take Eli’s book so he can bind others to his will by teaching them a worse, possibly Catholic version of Christianity.

The evil for which Eli does his killing is unambiguous and unexplained. This implies that it’s inherent in humankind, as is Yahweh’s conclusion in Genesis 6:5. This, in turn, implies that the apocalypse itself—a blinding light from the sky—was one of Yahweh’s genocides, like Noah’s flood, the plagues of Egypt or Joshua’s wars of extermination. Eli’s apocalypse is further implied to have been implemented as a nuclear war. However, 99.9999% of people would not choose to burn their bibles after a total breakdown of communications, especially not if they ascribe the event to Yahweh. There is no explanation for why illiteracy is almost universal a mere 30 years later. For all that’s implied, very little makes sense.

All of this is dumb and befitting of Christianity. The real book is full of badasses, desert vision quests and hypocritical extreme violence, incongruously juxtaposed with claims to humility and kindness. The movie is thus remarkably faithful to the self-serving letter and spirit of the original text. Unfortunately, despite Carnegie’s ambition to shape a new Christianity and Eli ultimately recreating The Bible from memory, there is no intelligent treatment of how The Bible itself was retconned and reshaped by disaster and political ambition throughout its writing. A missed opportunity.

Despite its bad intentions and poor writing, The Book of Eli could easily have been redeemed by a kitsch aesthetic. Washington, at least, takes his work seriously as a humble action hero, and there is something inherently funnny in trashy, hyperviolent biblical fanfic made with such a straight face. The choice to whistle some Morricone is also funny. The choice to cast a person of colour is good. Alas, the action is inconsistently exaggerated and poorly executed: Gunshot victims are sometimes thrown backwards, a fragmentation grenade on a road tosses an armoured car up in the air, a machete easily cuts through any bone without inertia, and so on. It’s CGI without believability. The colour grading is notoriously dull, though beige, and the worldbuilding is nonsensical. It is ultimately a generic conservative pessimist post-apocalypse, distinguished by religious content more overt than The Stand (1978).

References here: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).

fiction moving picture