I only just saw The Book of Eli for the first time on television last weekend.  Although I’d heard that it was a great movie, I’d missed catching it in the theaters, and then I never heard another word about it.

And no wonder: It’s a post-apocalyptic drama, but without fleets of cobbled-together vehicles, bald musclemen with feathered headsets and skull-makeup, buckets of blood and broken bones flying everywhere, world-spanning trains, robo-suited troops or zombie attacks.  In other words, it’s the kind of movie that critics would have spoken well of, but the public must have been bored to death watching.

Well, if you were one of those movie-goers who just skipped this one, or missed it when it came to town, I’m here to tell you now: If you like serious drama and realistic adventure in a post-apoc setting, you’re not going to do much any better than this one.  The Book of Eli kicks ass.

Denzel Washington in The Book of EliFirst, you can’t do wrong with a movie starring Denzel Washington as Eli and featuring Gary Oldman as the chief bad guy, Carnegie; man, the chemistry between them was electric.  In fact, watching Washington alone (he probably gets in 95% screen time) is captivating enough to make up for the fact that, between him and Oldman, none of the rest of the cast is particularly strong or significant.  The only other notable character is Solara, played by Mila Kunis, the daughter of Oldman’s blind and regularly-abused “wife” (played by Jennifer Beals), and who decides to hitch her wagon to Eli when he shows up in her town.  But Solara isn’t a love-interest; she’s merely a new charge Eli reluctantly accepts on his journey west, with his special cargo.

The cargo is, of course, a book—the book—a King James Bible, supposedly the last of its kind.  Eli states that when the world fell to a nuclear war, many people blamed religion for the initial conflicts, and all religious books were sought and burned.  Eli was told “by a voice, which I heard as clearly as I hear you” to take his bible west, to a place that would preserve it.  So Eli is on the road, with just his meager supplies, and the book, struggling to survive, and dealing with other survivors, and the occasional marauding band, with amazing skill.

Carnegie runs what’s left of a small western town, and he seeks the one thing he discovers Eli has: A bible.  He is aware of the power in the words of the Bible, and he hopes to use it to better control his people, draw others to him, and lead the world out of its present chaos.  His goal may be honorable, but it’s also particularly skeevy, and Eli refuses to give up the book.  Here is our story’s conflict, which seems predictable enough… until, suddenly it isn’t (Spoilers follow in the blockquote).

Carnegie gets the Bible; a seriously wounded Eli continues west without it, but with Solara in tow; and they reach their ultimate goal, which turns out to be a makeshift museum embedded on Alcatraz Island.

Which is where the double-twist comes in: Eli doesn’t need the King James Bible, because he memorized it long ago; and Carnegie can’t use the Bible he’s stolen, because it’s… in braille.  Yes, Eli is blind, something that is made obvious at the end of the movie; though when you realize it you’ll probably start to recall moments of Eli’s actions and behavior that indicated his blindness and subsequent heightening of his other senses… if you knew what to look for.  And further insult is added to Carnegie’s injury when his wife, long-suffering at his hands, knows braille, but cruelly refuses to read the Book for him.

The palette of the movie is wonderfully bleak, and very monochromatic, especially when you consider the way Eli experiences the world during his travels.  Other than Eli’s preternatural fighting skills, there is little over-the-top or outlandish about this story; there is no soaring music or triumphant melodramatic moments; it’s a straightforward drama with nothing but believable characters.

I realize that a lot of people would rather watch movies like Mad Max, World War Z or I Am Legend to get their post-apocalyptic thrills.  But for me, a movie that depicts the realistic aftermath of a horrible fall of humanity is much more interesting and infinitely more powerful.  And instead of crazy stunts, impossible heroic moments, bwaa-ha-ha! and it’s a lovely day! posturing… depicting the pitting of two dominant wills, both with (to their mind) believable and realistic goals, is so much more satisfying (for the hero) and biting (for the villain).

The movie doesn’t have a powerful religious message, although the popular phrase you reap what you sow figures prominently in this story.  In fact, you really can’t call this movie science fiction just because it takes place in the future.  This is post-apocalyptic fiction, pure and simple, and more realistic than the last 1o cheesy post-apoc movies out there.  The Book of Eli is a 5-star drama all the way.

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