In the future, according to "The Book of Eli," we'll all dress like we're in a Nine Inch Nails video. It is written.
Most everyone wears goggles and leather in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of "The Book of Eli." A meteorite and a subsequent war 30 years earlier has scorched the Earth and the population.
The landscape (shot in New Mexico) is much like an old Western: bandits (albeit cannibalizing bandits) lurk the desert roads, while rough crowds take refuge in hardscrabble towns. At the downtown saloon, water, not whiskey, is "the good stuff."
Across this charred land strides our Christian cowboy, Eli (Denzel Washington), a mysterious, solitary man who carries the last remaining Bible in his backpack. He also carries a gleaming silver knife and a shotgun, both of which he's expert with.
After "the flash" of the cataclysm that rocked the Earth, many blamed the troubles on religion. All the books were burned, making the few that remain precious cargo indeed.
Those born after this event (and this might not seem so futuristic) don't have any knowledge of books — what they mean or how to read them. The elders are the exception, those who lived "before." Among them is Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a villainous man who presides over the town Eli wanders into.
He sends his minions out in search of a Bible, though all they can do is return with "The Da Vinci Code" — which apparently even meteorites can't destroy. An intellectual (we first meet him reading a biography of Mussolini), Carnegie believes the Bible's power will make him a great leader: "It's a weapon," he says.
When Eli and Carnegie meet, much fighting ensues. A young woman, Solara (Mila Kunis, oddly fashionable in tattered clothes), gets roped into the fracas. Tom Waits makes a good cameo as a simple, somewhat quirky shopkeeper.
Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage these days, and it's easy to see the imprint of Cormac McCarthy's far more deeply felt "The Road" — just recently adapted with disappointing results — on "The Book of Eli." Like McCarthy's great novel, "The Book of Eli" follows a wandering man on a lawless road while carrying his charge (a boy, rather than a book, in "The Road").
"The Road" even included an Eli: "Ely," played by Robert Duvall in the movie. We might take both as a reference to the prophet Elijah. But "The Book of Eli" doesn't get too Biblical, mostly content to spout a few cool-sounding verses before a battle.
Blink and you'll miss the only allusion to other religious tomes — a cheap, belated try at tolerance. One senses the Bible was chosen for "The Book of Eli" earnestly, but perhaps also to take advantage of its cultural weight. Such travails might not be plausible for one carrying the last copy of "Moby Dick," or, for that matter, "Jonas Brothers: Inside Their World."
Cinematographer Don Burgess has drained the film to a sepia. What breathes life into "The Book of Eli" is the performances, most notably by Washington and Oldman.
It's fun to see Oldman, made relatively boring in the Batman films, return to full, theatrical villain mode. He's not over-the-top like he was in "The Professional," but a rational, intelligent survivor — a frustrated dictator. He wants order, only he wants to control it.
Washington, too, is in his wheelhouse. Ever able to play a man with purpose, he propels the film on a straightforward, linear path: a charismatic man-of-few-words with a whole lot of them in his sack.