The Book of Eli was a great movie. That being said, let me qualify my remarks with the statement that I have NOT read the book upon which the movie was based. For that reason, my review must be taken as a commentary only on the quality of the film itself. The book may in fact, provide more nuance than the film, but then again, what movie doesn't?
The film is another installment in what is admittedly one of my favorite genres: the post-apocalyptic dystopia. It features all of the hallmarks of the genre, including stoic and/or cynical heroes, a sense of despair coupled with a dogged belief or hope that something better is indeed possible, and a journey of some sort that has to be made through the wastes, which gives the director a chance to show both the atrocities and beauty of the human experience. My other favorites in this genre include last fall's brilliant Viggo Mortensen film "The Road" and Clive Owen's "Children of Men".
The Book of Eli is no different. It features Denzel Washington as Eli, whose name we never learn directly, only when it is spied on a name tag he has kept in his backpack. Eli appears to the viewer as a bitter cynic, because throughout the movie he makes efforts to ignore the horror around him as "not his fight", but we later learn that this apparent cynicism masks a much deeper hopefulness for humankind's future. The pervasive despair is lightened when we realize that his despair is really hopefulness built around his singleminded dedication to a mission. And the journey through the wastes is also present, showing the depths of the degradation to which we are all in fact, vulnerable, once things fall apart.
The sepia tones typical of a burned out dried wasteland are all there. The camerawork is impressive, showing Denzel's Eli marching through miles of western desert, winding roads and wrecked former highways. The action sequences are brilliant, with much of the gore alluded to or shown in shadows, as Washington masters hand-to-hand combat with an assurance of a man who knows he is in fact, invulnerable. Washington's performance is nuanced, showing self-assurance in his character's mission, coupled with a sense of sadness for how horrible things have become for mankind. I have always found Washington's depiction of flawed protagonists (He Got Game, Training Day, Glory, Out of Time, even X) more compelling, and Washington's Eli continues this trend, as a brilliant but reluctant warrior in the fight to serve humanity who often ignores situations where he could help because it is inconsistent with his primary objective. Yet despite this, we soon learn he has the biggest heart of any character in the film.
The film has a surprising cast, including Washington, Gary Oldman, Jennifer Beals, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson and even appearances by Tom Waits and Malcolm McDowell.
And this cynical blogger, was, despite being a hard-boiled agnostic/atheist, touched by the film's message about having a dogged belief in something other than oneself.