Is it too much to ask that a big studio-release blockbuster—even a post-apocalyptic one—at least attempts to be coherent? God knows these are feverish times—by my calculation, we’ve seen 31 planetary demise films since 2001, ranging from the brilliant (Children of Men) to the preposterously hilarious (Zombieland). Some were intriguingly absurd (Shaun of the Dead), while others were almost too harrowingly depressing to endure (The Road). So far, however, none has used our future fears as an excuse both to kick wholesale booty and earnestly prove how rewarding it is to peruse the King James Bible. It’s a kung fu manual! It’s a book report! Stop—you’re both right.
The Book of Eli paints a future where the sun has burned out the effective range of cinematic palette possibilities, leaving only sepias and grays behind. (It actually resembles Alfonso Cuarón’s ingenious Children of Men in both look and camera-work, though it’s nowhere near as intelligent.) Eli (a grizzled yet hunky Denzel Washington) is the super-ninja apostle who’s trying to save the Bible after voices in his head tell him to hack his way across America. If this were satire, it’d be brilliant—pointing out the multiple hypocrisies latent in that brand of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” Christianity that helped create the mess Eli obviously is hell-bent on preserving.
But it doesn’t play like farce, and Washington’s few extended monologues obsess on the enduring, compelling power of faith. Worse, however, are the big failures of script logic: Sometimes bullets bounce off Eli, Solara (the pouty Mila Kunis) escapes from a sealed-tight cave sans any explanation for a presumably gullible audience. But the biggest cheat comes in the end, where Eli’s sanctity gets a further flavoring. (People at my screening groaned audibly at the lame twist.)
For me, the bigger question concerns the Catholic Church, who recently condemned Avatar for its overt neo-paganism. I’m dying to see if the Pope bans this for use of a Protestant translation. Meanwhile, who can resist the Word of God surviving with extreme prejudice? Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.