Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Book of Eli

It's actually pretty hard to talk about The Book of Eli without giving away the surprise. You could do the movie reviewer thing and just talk about the quality and so on, but what makes the film interesting to talk about is the way the plot works out, and it's twistier than it needs to be.

I quite like post apocalyptic action movies because I adored Mad Max 2 when I was in my twenties (it happened to be a time when I needed role models with shattered legs) and I'm always hoping that the next post apocalyptic movie is going to be just as good, even though Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome should have taught me that even with the same cast and director, it's still not going to be any good. I manage to suppress this rational response each time a fresh serving shows up, because the essence of enjoying popular culture is to switch off your memories of popular culture.

But damn, the post apocalypse gets old fast. Just as I spend a lot of time at Bond movies wondering how the villain got planning permission for his headquarters (same way crooks everywhere did it, I know), I spent a lot of the rather slow and dreary set up of Book of Eli wondering why it was that in the whole surviving population of the world there didn't seem to be one person with the impulse to, you know, just pick up after himself. Was it just inevitable that all the survivors were going to be such dicks? Wouldn't there be people who just wanted to get along and keep things neat?

Anyhow, the central schtick in the movie is that there's just the one copy of the bible left in the whole world, and Denzel Washington's Eli is carrying it round. He's been walking west for thirty years because the voices in his head told him to. We get a couple of opening setups to let us see that Eli is a stupendous badass and that everyone else in the world is ghastly and kind of inept, and then we stroll into the main plot, when Eli heads into some windblown town with no visible means of support, and finds himself right in the crosshairs for the corrupt mayor of the burg, who's always in the market for a few good men - particularly after Eli gets into a bar fight where he singlehandedly kills about half of the legbreakers of his existing group of few good men. Anxious to keep Eli in town and on his side, he sends the town's cutest girl to win him over. But this just raises the stakes, because she comes back and drops the news about the world's one and only bible. The mayor is quite the bibliophile, and just to hammer home the point his character's called Carnegie. Something this heavy handed calls for a particular kind of scenery chewing, but luckily Gary Oldman had nothing better to do that week. And Carnegie wants the bible more than Aldo Raine wanted his Nazi scalps. He reckons a working bible will let him run the whole damn world.

Eli's having none of this blandishment, and he sets out on his way. Carnegie tries to stop him. Eli's so far taken out about a dozen guys in melee, so Carnegie sends mooks with guns. The first two shots at Eli miss, and then he starts shooting back. Three minutes later Carnegie's got a lot less mooks than he used and Eli's still on the way out of town.

More events ensue, Carnegie gets the book, Eli finally gets all the way west, and we get an uplifting ending. Here's where my quibbling starts.

There's a butt-load of stealing going on in this movie. The saloon showdown is out of every western ever made. The big reveal is a rip-off of Mad Max II - just swap out the tanker for the book, and hey presto, there you are - the bad guys have chased the good guys and apparently half killed the hero to get what they were looking for, only to discover at the end that it's useless to them. But that's OK, if it works. Doomsday is pretty much a string of setpieces from seven different better movies but it's good fun so you don't mind. Book of Eli seems to be taking itself way more seriously than that, and therefore it's harder to forgive it for being lazy and derivative.

One of the running things through the movie is that it's been a long time since the apocalypse and much has been forgotten (this leads to one really good gag when Eli admits that he's hidden the book in a TV, and the mook sent to get it doesn't know what a TV is). So it bugged me slightly when the town's cutest girl is able to step into one of the few running vehicles still left in the world and just drive the damn thing without difficulty. That doesn't make sense.

Other bits of lazy plotting or just plain plot holes. Eli's walking west and early one gets dry gulched by a chick acting as bait for goons. After a lot of walking he gets to Carnegie town, and then leaves Carnegietown heading west again. When the town's cutest girl follows him, she gets dry gulched by the same chick (and an all new band of goons, since Eli cut up the first batch of goons A LOT). WTF? How does that happen? Of course, Eli's been walking for thirty years, he kind of has to have been walking in circles; even at a mile a day, thirty years should have taken him from one side of the US to the other.

Biggest niggle is just one of those things which only someone like me cares about. It's the Book of Eli, after all. So the big twist is that the Book IS Eli; that he has the whole thing in his head. He's memorised it over time by listening to an iPod. The physical book he's been carrying all this time is a Braille bible. Which gives us a big reveal that he's been blind all along and his stupendous badassery has been even more stupendous because he was doing it all with hearing and smell instead of seeing things. I think this was supposed to amaze me, but I went to a school with blind children and I know what size Braille books are. A Braille bible would fill the back of a jeep, not fit in a backpack. Eli's book would just about hold one gospel. No, there's no such thing as Braille small print. Don't be silly. So I was completely distracted from the big reveal of Denzel, black Zaitochi by my irritation about the book. Maybe my mind is just made for disappointment.

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