Stop me if you've heard this before: The filmmakers set the story in a postapocalyptic future, and....
You've stopped me already? OK, you're right. You've seen most of 2010's "The Book of Eli" if you've seen any of the 800 postapocalyptic sci-fi movies that preceded it, from the "Mad Max" series to the "Terminator" franchise to "A Boy and His Dog" to "Wizards," "Cyborg," "Resident Evil," "9," "Reign of Fire," "Zardoz," "20 Years After," "Deadland," "The Last City," "Dark Vengeance," "Warrior of the Lost World," "Phoenix the Warrior," "Cosmic Dissonance," etc. Basically, if you've seen one, you've seen them all. Of course, if you can't get enough of this postapocalyptic stuff, "The Book of Eli" isn't a bad addition to the genre.
The primary benefit "The Book of Eli" has going for it is its star, Denzel Washington, who has a knack for making almost any film better than it is by his just being in it. The movie also moves along at a fairly decent clip, thanks to its directors, the brothers Albert and Allen Hughes ("Menace II Society," "Dead Presidents," "From Hell"). And there is always Gary Oldman to consider, back playing a villain after a stretch portraying good guys in the "Batman" and "Harry Potter" films. There aren't many actors who can do vicious the way Oldman does it.
Unfortunately, the pluses do not quite make up for the monotony of the plot and characters. I mean, how many times do we have to see the same people in the same drab, khaki-and-black-leather outfits after a disastrous world war has wiped out most of the planet? Were the bombs selective about what wardrobes they destroyed? They only went after and obliterated Polo shirts, dress shirts, slacks, sweaters, and anything with color in it? So everybody in the movie looks and dresses alike.
Moreover, almost everybody appears to live in the desert. Why the desert? Are there no trees, forests, lakes, or streams left on Earth? (We see a few live trees later in the movie.) One could understand the bombs destroying all the vegetation on the planet and polluting all the water, or the air pollution opening a hole in the ozone layer and letting in too much harmful sunlight, killing much of the vegetation; but no vegetation at all would mean the death of all living things, since we depend upon plants for oxygen. Yet people in the movie do persist, mostly in the middle of a wasteland (the Hughes brothers did their principal filming in New Mexico) where water is practically nonexistent (a couple of precious wells), and there is nary a shrub in sight. How do these people get along? We see Eli hunting in a decimated forest at the beginning of the film, but the rest of the characters only seem to drink alcohol and carouse all day. Where do they get their food (yeah, some of them are cannibals, but...)? What happens when the booze runs out?
Then, too, faithful to postapocalyptic movie traditions as set down in law by the "Mad Max" series, most of the survivors of Doomsday have gone back to living in clans or tribes, with warlords as their leaders, killing, raping, and eating any strangers who pass their way. Apparently, the bombs that totaled most of the planet were not only selective about the wardrobes they destroyed, they were also selective about what kinds of people they wiped out as well, killing mostly the good folks, the respectable folks, the smart folks, and leaving behind mainly the corrupt, the greedy, and the miscreants of society. Good-bye teachers and scientists; hello hoodlums and hooligans. Eli (Washington), obviously, is one of the exceptions to the rule. Maybe the bombs weren't so smart after all.
Now, what do you mean, Is there a plot? Certainly, there's a plot. It's just best to forget about it. Otherwise, what can be a passably stirring adventure yarn turns into a silly, illogical, and highly unlikely sermon. You see, for thirty years since the great war, Eli has been carrying a book. And not just any book. A special book. His job is to get that book to the West Coast. He doesn't know why or even exactly where he's going with it, but he's heard an inner voice inspiring him to carry the book West, and his faith is carrying him forward. He's gotten the Word. It's the most important book in the world. It's the most powerful book in the world. It's.... Well, if you haven't figured out by now what the book is, you're probably better off. If the main character's name doesn't give it away, nothing will. Let's just say that at one time it was the most-published book on the planet, but now almost all copies of it have disappeared. ("They burned them all after the War" just doesn't cut it.) Except Eli has a copy. What are the odds, unless it's Divine intervention?
Now everybody's after the book. Especially Carnegie (Oldman), an evil gang leader (or tribal warlord) who knows the value of the book and prizes it above all things. He believes if he can obtain the book, he can become the most-powerful man on Earth. He can rule...the desert. Or whatever. So that's it. This is no Bond villain trying to extort billions of dollars from world leaders or a "Star Wars" villain seeking to conquer the universe; this is a villain dead set on getting a book.
Anyway, forget all the "book" stuff and enjoy the action. Eli is a survivor, perhaps a trained soldier or a government agent before the war, and a well-educated man. Washington plays the character in his usual low-key, soft-spoken, amiable manner, coming off as a kind of laconic Eastwood Man-With-No-Name. In fact, the whole movie plays like an old-fashioned Western; Eli even introduces himself as "Nobody." But he establishes his credentials early on as a man who can take care of himself when he dispatches half a dozen hijackers in seconds with a single blade. To further prove the point, he does the same thing a short time later with another group of thugs. The "inner voice" also told him "he'd be protected"; so he's got that working for him, too. Washington makes a likeable, capable, kick-ass hero, and that's what counts in a film like this.
Likewise, the supporting cast is top-notch. Oldman's Carnegie is a very clever, very bad dude; Ray Stevenson as his main henchman, Redridge, is appropriately menacing; Jennifer Beals as Carnegie's woman, Claudia, is fine in the role; Mila Kunis as Claudia's twenty-something daughter, Solara, is even better, vulnerable but tough as nails. In addition, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour as George and Martha, a wacky old couple living in the middle of the wasteland, are amusing ("We may be old, but we're resilient"); as is Tom Waits as an oddball engineer working in Carnegie's town.
In all, "The Book of Eli" will not go down as one of Denzel Washington's best films nor as one of the Hughes brothers' best films, but given a chance, without thinking too much about its simplistic moralizing, it can provide a rousing good time in the action department.
The Warner video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec to reproduce the movie on Blu-ray disc in its original aspect ratio, 2.40:1. The result actually looks better to me than it did in a theater, where the larger screen emphasized too much of the grain. Here, there is still grain, but it better enhances the texture of the image. Moreover, the smaller home screen condenses the picture enough that it looks sharper than it did in a theater.
The movie's opening shots and most of the shots that follow are practically in black and white, or at least a monochromatic brown-and-white. Despite this stylistic choice on the directors' part, the PQ is so clear and clean, the definition so well delineated, the film is a pleasure to look at. Then, when color does show up, slowly and barely, it's quite natural and lifelike. The outstanding video quality combined with the movie's equally good cinematography make "The Book of Eli" quite a beautiful film visually, something you might not expect from something in the postapocalyptic genre.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is nothing short of terrific, displaying a strong dynamic impact, a wide front-channel stereo spread, and excellent, often pinpoint, surround activity. The rear/side channels begin by offering up some pleasant ambient bloom on the musical track and continue through various sonic effects: wind, gunshots, explosions, and all sorts of loud noises. The sound is easily as sharp, taut, clear, and impressive as the PQ, maybe more so.
The first few bonus items on the disc are Blu-ray exclusives. They begin with a "Maximum Movie Mode," a picture-in-picture affair with little featurettes along the way, storyboard comparisons, concept art, etc. Next, we get the Focus Points by themselves, about thirty-four minutes of them, followed by four regular featurettes: "A Lost Tale: Billy," five-minutes of animation about the young Carnegie before his quest for power; "Starting Over," thirteen minutes on the reconstruction of the world after a major disaster; "Eli's Journey," eighteen minutes with the director on the moral complexities of the story; and "The Book of Eli Soundtrack," about five minutes with co-director Allen Hughes and composer Atticus Ross on the movie's score.
Further, the disc includes a couple of minutes of deleted/alternative scenes; BD-Live; twenty-five chapter selections; a guide to elapsed time; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Finally, because the movie comes in a Combo Pack, it includes not only the high-definition Blu-ray disc but a standard-definition DVD and, on the DVD, a digital copy of the film for iTunes and Windows Media, the offer expiring June 13, 2011. The two-disc set comes housed in a double BD case, further enclosed in a cardboard slipcover.
To be honest, I liked "The Book of Eli" better this second time around on Blu-ray than I did in a theater. Knowing what to look for and what to ignore made it a lot more fun to watch, and, frankly, it looks and sounds better on my system than it did at the theater. Who'da thunk.
"I fought the good fight. I finished the race. I kept the faith." --Eli, echoing Paul's words from "II Timothy, 4:7."