When compared to a box office juggernaut like Avatar, it can seem as though The Book of Eli doesn’t really stack up. While the latter grossed almost $32 million its opening weekend, Avatar claimed $77 million its first three days out. Still, what makes a film like Eli as fulfilling as one like Avatar is not its special effects or 3D imagery or groundbreaking action sequences because it has virtually none of that. What sets this relatively modest Hughes Brothers project apart from bigger budget blockbusters is what truly makes for an enjoyable movie-watching experience: it is a powerful story that is well told.
The power in this story, however, is rare in motion pictures. As Tinseltown gravitates more and more toward visuals, jaw-dropping fight scenes, and the pursuit of ever more spectacular and realistic computer generated images (CGI) to satisfy moviegoers, Denzel Washington’s latest effort relies less on slick eye candy and more on the power of its strong script and the extraordinary talent of its players and its directing and production teams to make a compelling film.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future about 30 years from now, the “Book” referenced in the film’s title is the last remaining copy of the Holy Bible on earth. Eli (Washington) is on a journey “west”, as his character informs, and is carrying the holy volume with him. As he comes upon a small, relatively thriving but still dilapidated town, he is confronted by the outpost’s dictatorial self-proclaimed mayoral figure Carnegie (smartly played by Gary Oldman) who has been desperately searching for the Book for years. Their encounter is friendly at first but once Carnegie learns what Eli has in his possession, the tension kicks into high gear as does Eli’s fight to protect the Book.
Eli has an ace up his sleeve though; a helpful guide of sorts who Eli claims is the one who told him to head west with the Book and informed him that he would be protected on his journey against anyone or anything that tried to stop him. There is never any revelation and very little mention of this silent partner in the film and though his identity is only indirectly referenced, it manages to add an element of reverential respect for Eli and for his mission. By the end of the film, the story has been laid out so compellingly and with such imaginative creativity and inherent power, that everything that has been learned about Eli, about the Book, and about why he was instructed to head west hits you right in the heart through retrospective analysis and the truth about the real power of the Book itself provokes deep thought and arguably, personal introspection.
Because The Book of Eli is centered around the Holy Bible and carries such a powerfully compelling message by way of an equally powerful story, there is the potential for the film to be written off as preachy or too religious. However, there is more than enough action and deliciously unbearable tension throughout the film to argue against that. By telling the story of ‘Eli’, Denzel and the Hughes Brothers are engaged in something that transcends far beyond glorified Bible thumping. These A-listers have a deep and uncompromising world view and have taken an incredible script, penned by screenwriter Gary Whitta, and injected life into it. But the life they’ve given this story is not the same as that which comes though in other awe-inspiring action-adventure films or dramas or any other genre that has comes out of Hollywood. The life they’ve put into this film is much more real; much more robust and genuine. It is in fact the spirit of the film that is so powerful and alive.
For Austinites, ‘Eli’ is an opportunity to exercise some of that world-famous tolerance and open-mindedness for which we’ve become known. Austin movie buffs should not make the mistake of dismissing this film as religious hype but rather embrace it as an especially moving and inspiring story with a heart-felt message of love and truth for every human being on the planet.
The Book of Eli is now playing. Check local Austin listings for theaters and showtimes.