[19 January 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In general, movies and religion do not really get along. Most depictions of the pious tend toward the insane, the frantically fundamentalist, the dirty-dealing criminal and/or pervert, or the brain dead and Lord-lovingly clueless. While The Bible could be the basis for a hundred powerful cinematic blockbusters (just imagine the Apocalypse as a $200 million Roland Emmerich project), many in the biz-ness find a need to make a mockery out of faith. Sure, there are the rare titles which handle the material in smart, sophisticated ways (The Rapture, anyone?) but for the most part, God and good times at the Cineplex don’t seem to mix.
Perhaps this is why The Book of Eli is such a ‘revelation’, in more than one interpretation of the word. It offers a serious science fiction film in an era which has almost exclusively embraced a more Lucas-fied feel to speculative narratives. It paints an oh-so bleak picture of a precarious post-apocalyptic America without going overboard into dullness (The Postman) or defeat (The Road). And it allows Denzel Washington to play a role he was truly born to essay - that of a future shock prophet on a mission to save the actual word of God. For those who have yet to experience this film - be warned. The next few paragraphs will be chock full of SPOILERS. Sadly, without revealing all the intricacies of the plot and players involved, it would be impossible to see how overly religious and sacred this storyline really is.
Frankly, Christians should be lining up to embrace the Hughes Brothers’ brave vision. In Gary Whitta’s first feature screenplay, they have found a mock messiah who defies both convention and contravention. He can kick ass, but only in the name of his mission. Let’s avoid the violence subtext for a moment and address who Eli really is. First off, he’s a survivor, and a chosen one at that. He states near the middle of the film that he saw a hole in the sky “open up”. After the world ended, he was told by God to grab a copy of The Bible, protect it with his life, and head West. So he is clearly called, even if we initially deem his belief to be something akin to preachy post-traumatic stress disorder. Sure, he seems unstoppable (and has made it wandering for 30 years to prove it), but in times of great chaos, such clarity is just freaky.
As he moves among the miscreants, the cruel criminal element and cannibalistic bottom feeders, Eli is never really in danger. Even as he wields his massive sword with villain cutting precision, he remains a steadfast member of God’s Army. He is never truly injured, and seems capable of inhuman recuperative powers. All the while, he remains firm in his need. And every night, before bed, he picks up the book and reads. This is crucial. He just doesn’t comprehend the words, however. He digests them. He makes them part of who he is, so much that, as he lives by them, others are taken with his example. The Mila Kunis character is a perfect example of a potential disciple, someone who sees Eli and immediately wants to follow. It’s not about sex or escape, really. It’s about finally finding a righteous path and means of escaping this horrid existence - and needing to take it.
As if these minor subtexts are not enough, the Hugheses pack on some clear visual pronouncements. In Carnegie’s stronghold, he takes down several extremely capable killers, and as he is leaving to continue his quest, right hand man Redridge (Ray Stevenson) takes aim and shoots directly at the back of Eli’s head. The bullet hole even appears near the coat collar on the nape of his neck. But is our hero hurt? Is he even scratched? No. Instead, Redridge instantly realizes that there will be no stopping this particular wanderer, and that, perhaps, his calling is more powerful than any weapon they possess.
Of course, Carnegie doesn’t feel that way, as he represents everything that God must hate in the evangelistic and misguided. He wants The Bible because of its power over the weak and desperate, the frightened and the easily swayed. In this classic case of good vs. evil, he is the Devil to Eli’s prophet substitute. In order for our hero’s ambition to be meaningful, it has to be fought over and fragile. Eli has the power of God behind him, but Carnegie has the pragmatic means of bringing him down. Their stand-off occurs right before the film’s finale, when our characters have just survived a run-in with a quirky cannibal couple. Realizing he can’t escape, Eli gives himself up - and Carnegie shoots him. As the bullet hits its mark, a lightning bolt crashes across the sky…signifying what?
Let’s look at its two ways. Since God must know that (SUPER SPOILER WARNING) Eli is partially blind and been memorizing a Braille Bible for the last 30 years, his word is safe. The sky fireworks were a means of signifying that the sanctified has served his purpose. The Lord will make sure he gets to Alcatraz in San Francisco, a place where a printing press, and the ability to translate the tome into black and white, exists. It could also be a sign of displeasure, as if God is mad for carrying Eli all this way only to have a foolish despot like Carnegie try and stop him. Again, the Lord will oversee our hero’s safe passage to serve his purpose, but this last minute attempt at thwarting his will is really pissing him off.
In the end, Eli lives long enough to recite the entire King James version of The Bible to a secret order eager to bring books - and civilization - back to the last remaining vestiges of humanity. We see other holy books, on the shelf, but it is clear that a Christian maker is mandating said perspective is among the many options. Indeed, one of the best elements about The Book of Eli is that, while clearly catering to the Western version of faith, the ending suggests that all religion - and the moral message it brings - is important to our culture. Sure, Carnegie wants to pervert it for power and glory. But in the end, his own vanity and greed has guided him down a road toward abject destruction. Eli lives long enough to see his goal achieved. Our villain, wounded leg gangrenous and stinking, will die in vain.
It’s the perfect parable. There is struggle and strife. Lives - or in this case, the fate of all mankind - hang in the balance. One can easily see the parallel to put in practice. And the hand of God over the wasteland protects those who have faith and believe. Instead of smiting his enemies with thunderclaps and pestilence, the Lord uses Eli as a vessel, a way of making the wicked pay and the discouraged hopeful. As with all good Bible stories, Eli wins, even if his life is martyred for the sake of the greater religious good. It’s one of the most brilliant and visually arresting allegories ever. And in retrospect, there is never doubting the power of God - even if He seems to be working in mysterious ways.
Again, it will be interesting to see if the Christians embrace this film as part of their preaching. It does deliver the goods in ways that should turn wanton mainstream eyes toward Heaven. The Hugheses never overdo it, stuffing their sense of God down the throats of the always suspect masses, and the way the movie ends, in such a “sort of saving the world” mannerism should mean more than a few converts. Granted, most sci-fi has a sacrosanct element as part of its design. It’s the reason we find these flights of fancy so awe-inspiring. In this case, God isn’t some Nature Entity or blue-skinned alien. He is present and in the person of a strong, resilient African American. Just call it the Gospel 2.0 and the message is clear.