Book of Days. Book of History Lessons. Always remember from where you came. You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.
The first theatrically released film I watched in 2010 was The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers), a desaturated, post-apocalyptic fable. Eli, a lone wanderer, (Denzel Washington) has a single mission: go west, keep the Book safe, and do not stray from the path. He kills anyone who stubbornly refuses to let him be on his way. Carnegie (Gary Oldman), self-appointed sovereign of a shanty town, wants the Book. Eli comes to this town to charge a battery and encounters other characters that feature substantially in the plot. Carnegie finds out that Eli has the Book and we’re off to the races.
The identity of the Book is revealed very early. It’s a King James edition of the Bible. The Book of Eli doesn’t lay out the backstory to the doom. Instead, it presents pieces in conversation that the audience must synthesize. It would be very convenient to slap this film upside the noggin and call it coolly evangelical. It’s not Left Behind but it’s not The Last Temptation of Christ either. The film certainly promotes a theist view of existence, incorporating the issue of institutionalized religion vs. having faith, but it also frames holy texts as important parts of human civilization that should not be forgotten.
In order to continue this discussion, major spoilers ahead. Highlight relevant words at your own discretion. The Hughes Brothers’ films have a degree of humor no matter the subject matter. The scene with the cannibalistic old-timers (performed superbly by Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour) is both frightening and hilarious. I was both thrilled and disappointed towards the end of the film to see that Eli’s destination is Alcatraz and Malcolm MacDowell and his “followers” have been overseeing a rebuilding of books. There’s a printing press that is nearly ready for use. The viewer also learns that Eli has been blind through the whole film but has “read” the braille Bible of his so many times that he’s memorized it. But, this particular “reveal” is cross-cut with Carnegie’s discovery that the Book is visually-impaired-friendly so that when Eli and Solara (Mila Kunis) show up at the rock, the viewer isn’t quite sure what will happen. Of course, a couple sequences back, Eli tells Solara that he’s read the Book so many times and was so focused on protecting it that he had nearly forgotten about the golden rule. If you’re astute, you’d more or less be able to guess what will happen in the end.
There’s also a great montage sequence at the end where Malcolm MacDowell puts the printed King James Bible between the Torah and the Koran. Why was Eli’s Bible so special? It was the only one that survived a systematic search-and-destroy measure those in power took years back. Apparently, the Bible (interpret as any holy text perhaps) was the reason people went to war. In other words, using religion as an excuse to antagonize other people. The war, likely nuclear, made the sun go down and blinded people. When food and water became scarce (and everything else), some chose to turn to cannibalism. A side-effect was shaking hands.
I don’t believe the film is preaching the need to cower to unseen forces. Taken somewhat cynically, I’d argue that on the one hand, people who forget their past are likely to make the same mistakes, but on the other hand, when enough time passes, people will continue to try to make fire and reinvent the wheel.
One day, one night, one moment,
my dreams could be, tomorrow.
One step, one fall, one falter,
east or west, over earth or by ocean.
One way to be my journey,
this way could be my Book of Days.
My four favorite parts of the film:
Gary Oldman tells Jennifer Beals about shampoo.
When Eli tells Solara, “Faith is when you know something but you don’t know something.”
And this scene:
Product Placement and Branding: Motorola megaphone, KFC moist towelettes, early generation iPod, Oprah magazine, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, a Mussolini biography (Gary Oldman’s character reads it), and the Bee Gees (“How Can you Mend a Broken Heart”).
Audience demographics: 7pm showing at Regal Northpoint 70% filled to capacity; average age: 35; male to female ratio about even; I was possibly one among a dozen ethnic minorities. I think I was the only Asian person in the audience.
See more movie stills here.