In their first movie since 2001′s From Hell, Allen and Albert Hughes deliver a thoughtful message tucked beneath the stylized gray skies of a bleak, post-apocalyptic existence.
It’s been 30 years since the great “flash” tore a hole in the sky. A nomad by the name of Eli (a grizzled Denzel Washington) trudges across the barren desert landscapes of a war-torn world on a mysterious journey. He’s alone for miles on the scorched Earth, readily brandishing a sharpened machete when encountering packs of cannibal scavengers. For a time, Washington stars in his very own I Am Legend.
The pace is plodding at times, settling into a dreary, deliberate rhythm between bursts of violent energy. Another action sequence might have helped the tempo, but the Hughes’ excessive use of slow motion might explain the almost 2-hour runtime, which doesn’t feel lengthy until a trailing denouement.
Eli wanders into a primitive shanty town right out of an old Western, except for desperate citizens scrounging for items to barter and wearing sunglasses to shade their eyes from the blistering sun. In the town saloon, Eli unflinchingly dispatches a barroom full of attackers before becoming acquainted with Solara (Mila Kunis), a bartender/slave who seems a little too cute to be living in a world without soap, toothpaste, or especially make-up.
Water is an expensive commodity and ChapStick is a rarity in the dry heat — I recommend a concessions beverage during this movie — but books are the most precious possessions. It’s like your teachers always told you: knowledge really is power.
Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the nefarious ruler of the village, manipulates the weak, thirsty people to search for remaining books (though after 30 years, you’d think he might have found them all nearby). He, like Eli, understands the necessity and strength in education, though it’s immediately clear they differ in their usage. Upon learning of Eli’s titular tome, Carnegie sicks his goons on the “walker” to retrieve it by any means necessary. Cue the gunfire and explosions.
Some might consider revealing the book as a spoiler*, but it’s difficult to talk about the film and its inherit themes without discussing what Eli is carrying. I feel as though it’s rather obvious, but if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know the identity of the book you should stop reading beyond this point.
Guided by faith, which Eli defines as “knowing something even though you don’t know it,” the lone wanderer carries the last remaining copy (?) of a King James Bible from the East to the West. His mission from God is to deliver the book to the right people who will appreciate its message.
Like anything wielding a certain degree of power, the Bible itself can become a tool for evil in the hands of corrupt leaders. Look no further than evangelist Pat Robertson who just this week condemned the suffering people of Haiti days after a devastating earthquake changed the lives of millions of men, women and children, or the people of the Westboro Baptist Church who regularly stage protests at the funerals of fallen soldiers. Vile human beings hiding behind a disgustingly distorted interpretation of God’s word.
Of course these are extremes, but they’re the concepts behind why Carnegie obsesses over control of the Bible (and thus religion and the surrounding population), and why Eli risks his life to keep it safe. It’s also the ideology behind contradictory beliefs that religion was the cause of and the solution to humanity’s struggle to survive. Perhaps it’s the reasoning for a blood-soaked dystopian movie focused on the holy book.
On a basic level, movies are intended to entertain, but great film provokes thought or feeling. I may not have felt much of anything for screenwriter Gary Whitta’s characters, but the Hughes brothers engaged me enough and clearly had me thinking. For that, this movie is worth a watch in my book.
3.5 out of 5.
*Side note: Eli’s book as the Bible isn’t necessarily a spoiler (there are other, bigger twists), as much as it’s a way for Warner Bros’ marketing team to conceal that an action movie with bloody machetes is really about religion or preserve its opening in select international markets where there are fewer Christians. Feel free to disagree below.