– Summary –
Director : The Hughes Brothers
Year Of Release : 2010
Principal Cast : Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Malcolm MacDowell, Tom Waits, Jennifer Beals, Michael Gambon.
Approx Running Time : 1hr 50 Minutes
Synopsis: A wandering traveller in a post-apocalyptic Earth carries with him humanities salvation in the form of an ancient book. A book that will change the course of human history. Again.
What we think : Decidedly slow-burn future epic, from the Hughes Brothers, which reminds me a lot of films such as Mad Max and, more recently, The Road. Denzel is excellent, but he’s unable to overcome the leaden narrative, generic genre-characters, and wobbly religious iconography. Well filmed, but ultimately a fizzer.
In the future (as always), humanity is decimated by an unknown catastrophe (as always) and the dregs of society scour the planet for ways to survive. Water, food, companionship: all these things are in short supply, and those who control such things have risen to be powerful indeed. A wandering loner (Denzel Washington) is heading across the country (we’d guess America) in a westerly direction, carrying a backpack and several weapons. He’s also quite a good fighter, his ability with a blade and a gun unmatched by the skillset of anyone he encounters. When he wanders into a small town, run by the power-mad Carnegie (Gary Oldman), he’s immediately targetted as a worthy addition to the gang that rules these parts. However, the walker doesn’t want to join the gang, and makes his intent known to Carnegie, who discovers through a young girl Solara (Mila Kunis) that he carries a Bible. And so the race is on to capture the last known copy of the holy book, something the walker is prepared to fight to the death to protect.
Make no mistake: the trailers for this film lied. Outright. This isn’t an action classic. This is anything but. Rather than Terminator: Salvation styled histrionics, the similarly toned Book Of Eli manages to deliver a ponderous, deliberate human epic, minus the humanity. Despite a relative lack of crowd pleasing action moments, and a lack of genuine emotion from anyone save the always-reliable Denzel, Eli isn’t going to win friends in the long term even for its sub-par psuedo-religious mythology. The Hughes Brothers (Dead Presidents, From Hell) have a great visual eye, there’s no denying it, as they present a gorgeous-to-watch film, but the movie lacks any soul. The characters don’t resonate with a modern audience, mainly due to the clichéd and generic supporting cast of apocalypse-weary, battered-and-bruised inhabitants of the world Eli presents. This is a world we’ve seen before, and although the Hughes Brothers try hard to bring us something new, it’s not enough to make us care. And if I see another sustained slow-motion shot of Denzel walking through the wasteland, sun glinting off his forehead and tremulous shimmers filling the distant horizon, honestly I’ll puke. The Hughes Brothers extended this film by twenty minutes just through their overuse of slo-motion alone. Hey guys! Learn to use establishing shots and normal speed cutaways, why dontcha! All this slow motion footage gets really boring, really quickly. Just a note.
All the stock characters are here: the heroic loner on a mission, a young girl seeking a different life, a crazy psychopath craving power over those around him, and the varied lunatics and scavengers that humanity will become once the bombs finally fall. The Hughes boys hit every genre note, sometimes harder than required, to tell their story. But it’s an empty one, devoid of genuine heart and soul, which is disappointing. Their efforts are worthwhile, for sure, but they fail to engage us in the plight of both the walker and his literary treasure. So where does it all go so wrong? Is it the casting? Not really; the cast all do a sterling job (with the exception of Oldman, whose teeth grinding role as the central villain (bordering on insanity) is indeed perhaps the least interesting thing about Eli as a whole. Denzel is solid, and delivers the requisite square-jawed portrayal of a man on a mission, regardless of personal cost, a man who has certain abilities that will see him through to the bitter end. Female co-star Mila Kunis makes a pretty, if shallow, travel companion, and her motives for joining the walker on his journey are sketchy at best; her role is underwritten and hollow, more a cypher for Denzel’s actions as she becomes the character with which we most identify.
The screenplay isn’t filled with action, but neither is it filled with quality dialogue or motivation – it’s an empty shell of a script trying desperately to feel quasi-religious and epochal, and comes off as neither. Instead, the rambling dialogue buffers us between set-pieces, a rag-tag journey through a world we’re not invested in emotionally at all. The films opening, with Denzel despatching of a group of violent hijackers, is pretty cool to watch, but after that Eli becomes a slog for the unwilling viewer. Characters come and go through this film, without warning or expectation, and while this may be okay for a tentpole blockbuster that is all about the effects, Eli isn’t one of those films, meaning the impact of those characters should be more important for the narrative. As it stands, they aren’t, and Denzel’s character isn’t as engaging as the filmmakers would have us believe. The film has a fair bit in common, believe it or not, with Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. The screenplay of Eli, which could almost be a carbon copy of Costner’s big-budget failure for all the similarities it shares, mines the wealth of genre generics with the skill of a brilliant pulp writers hand. Watch both these films back-to-back, and you’ll be surprised. A distant future world, a mysterious (and different) loner, and a quest to find something long thought lost; something that can save humanity. Transplant Denzel for Kev’s Mariner character, Oldman for Dennis Hopper’s mad villain, and the small town the walker encounters is quite similar to the atoll in Waterworld. Mila Kunis does her least impressive Jeanne Tripplehorn impression, and even current Dumbledore, Michael Gambon, subs for the late Michael Jeter for wild-haired crazy fellow. If you ask me, the similarities are a little too close for comfort.
No doubt there’ll be those who really latch onto yet another film set in an indeterminate future, long after trivial things like politics and entertainment have gone the way of the dinosaurs, but it’s hard for me to see why you’d bother. The ponderous pacing, which isn’t counteracted by a quality script to keep the viewer interested, eventually drags you into a mind-numbing sense of fatalistic nihilism as you watch. You’re expecting certain things to happen, things you’ve seen in other films (plot points, especially) and as the story progresses it becomes even more predictable, if that’s possible. The films final twist is handled appallingly, and with such a downbeat outgoing note, the film can’t overcome its suffocating melancholy tone to give us what I believe the Hughes Brothers expected to be an uplifting finale. While The Book Of Eli certainly looks fantastic, thanks to the skilled hands of cinematographer Don Burgess (whose work on Robert Zemeckis films such as Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Contact and The Polar Express, as well as mainstream fare like Spider-Man and Terminator 3 have given him the ability to really create a believable palette to set this film in), it’s an empty, lifeless affair (no pun intended) that meanders along at worst, stumbles along at best.