It can be pretty amazing the way you look at movies differently at various points in your life. When I first saw The Book of Eli (2010), spiritually speaking I was a far cry from where I am now in my walk with God. As a result, all I could focus on at that time was how bad of a movie it is. After watching it again recently, I still feel that way. However, there is now a caveat to it that is born of the progress I have made with my relationship with God. I will go over both of these sides to how I now view the movie. In the meantime, just know that while there are some serious flaws in an otherwise forgettable film, it is still one worth seeing at least once if you care at all about your Faith.
In case you are wondering, there is no The Book of Eli in the Bible. I just wanted to get that little factoid out of the way in case you were thinking this might be a Biblical story. So, what is it about? The first thing we see is our hero, Eli (Denzel Washington), hunting a cat while presumably radioactive soot rains down on a shattered forest. I say “presumably” because it is never explained what it is, or do we see another setting like it for the rest of the movie, but he is wearing gear to protect against radioactivity. Between that, the desert conditions he walks through the rest of the time, and the Mad Max state of the rest of the denizens, you can tell this is some kind of post-apocalyptic world. Later there are references to a war, so there you go. Anyway, Eli walks alone, but with a purpose, heading west. He is also able to defend himself quite capably. This is seen when he dispatches a number of ruffians on the road who attempted to ambush him for his stuff, and again in a bar in a settlement at which he stops for water. It is in this town that we meet our antagonist, Carnegie (Gary Oldman). He has a power that most people alive at this time do not possess: he can read. He is also the proprietor of the establishment that Eli roughs up a bit when its rowdy patrons cannot leave the traveler alone. Seeing Eli’s talent for death, Carnegie wants to keep the stranger around as added muscle for his operation. Eli thanks him as kindly as possible, but says that he must be on his way. Carnegie then forcefully insists that Eli stay, and in an attempt to change Eli’s mind, sends a young girl named Solara (Mila Kunis) to sleep with him. Eli politely rebuffs her advances, but she also learns that he has a book. Because she was born after whatever disaster ended civilization, she cannot read. Yet, she does notice the Cross on the cover, and she is intrigued by the prayer Eli says before sharing his meal with her. The next day, Solara goes to her mother Claudia (Jennifer Beals), who is Carnegie’s woman (and blind), and she attempts to recreate the prayer with her. Carnegie hears this, and it means that Eli just became much more interesting for him. In torturing Claudia in front of Solara, she reveals that Eli has a book and makes the symbol of the Cross with her fingers in describing it. Because what is left of society apparently spent a lot of time destroying Bibles, there are precious few left in existence. Carnegie wants it in order to use it as a tool to control people. Luckily, after a brief gun battle, Eli is able to make it out of the town and continue on his journey. Solara goes after him. Though initially he wants nothing to do with her, her insistence earns his respect. He also saves her life when the same group of bandits that attacked him earlier go after her. Yet, they have bigger problems to worry about, namely Carnegie is his men tracking them down. They catch up with Eli and Solara at the home of an elderly couple that were about to trap and eat the two travelers, but decide to pitch in to defend their home against Carnegie and company. Unfortunately, Carnegie has too much firepower on his side, and Eli and Solara eventually surrender. Eli hands over the book, Carnegie shoots him in the stomach, and Solara is taken. Solara, though, is able to get free and goes back for Eli, and they continue on to Eli’s destination, which turns out to be Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Meanwhile, satisfied that he has gained what he seeks, Carnegie takes the Bible back to his town. He is in for a surprise, though, when he gets the lock off the book at finds that it is in braille. Making matters worse, Claudia turns against him when she claims she cannot remember who to read the written language for the blind. Back at Alcatraz, a mortally wounded Eli spends the remainder of his days relating the Bible from memory to the lone surviving piece of civilization at the former prison. After he passes, Solara heads out into the world to continue whatever mission Eli had previously been pursuing.
If you did not see (no pun intended) Eli’s blindness coming in The Book of Eli, then I cannot blame you. They say that people without sight tend to have their other senses heightened. Having been blessed with two still functioning eyeballs, I cannot totally imagine what this must be like. Nonetheless, I have trouble accepting that Eli could do the precision, violent moves he performs throughout the movie without at least some use of his eyes. It stretches believability. There are some other things in it that are not fleshed out or explained. As alluded to earlier, the nature of the post-apocalyptic world is not fully developed. This is not always a problem with such movies. You see a society markedly worse off in the future from where you would expect it to be, and it is logical to assume that something went terribly wrong. In this film, whenever anyone goes outside, they insist on wearing sunglasses, even the blind Eli. It is said earlier that whatever the war was, it seemed to have turned up the brightness of the sun a few factors, something they call “the flash.” That is understandable, and yet they forget about the sunglasses at key moments. It is a lack of consistency to which I am speaking, and I notice such things. The frustrating part is they could have made Eli not be blind and it would have made as much sense. As for the braille Bible, maybe he had been able to understand how to read it before civilization went kaput?
As for the good stuff in The Book of Eli, it all has to do with Faith. There are some beautiful testaments to Eli’s belief throughout the film. Of course, one could criticize him for piling up a large body count throughout the proceedings. To that I would simply answer that he warned everyone beforehand to leave him alone. I also appreciate some of the less obvious aspects of his Faith, as in when he refutes Carnegie’s demands to hand over the Bible. The book is not a weapon of control, and I could hear the echoes of so many decriers of Christianity in the villain’s words. It is with that book that the only true freedom can be found, and Eli’s quest is proof of this fact. In talking about what he must do, he often quotes scripture. Of course, this skill comes in handy when he has to recite the entire Bible to the folks who copy it down at Alcatraz. This is something I wish my fellow Catholics, including myself, could do more readily, and it is probably no mistake that the translation of Scripture is the King James Version. In any case, my favorite testament of his comes when he explains his mission to Solara. He talks about how he heard a voice distinct from his own telling him to take the Bible west, and that he would be protected along the way. It wonderfully matches with what he says earlier about how he walks by Faith and not by sight. One might say that he is referring literally to his blindness, but then he explains further how some of the things he does and says do not make sense. And yet he insists that he is not crazy, which is clearly true. That is because Faith does not always have to make sense when you are following the will of God as is Eli. There is a moment when he questions things when he gets shot, but he is still able to continue on with his work. A lesser person might give up entirely, and so many do in the face of adversity. Instead, he picks himself up and carries on walking the path laid before him.
If you can ignore some of the more nonsensical and violent aspects of The Book of Eli, then there is a kernel of a good movie in it. At least it has that morsel. The overwhelming majority of films these days offer nothing of the sort. As such, I am glad I gave this film a second chance. That is something God will do for us every time.
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