Some films are plain good entertainment, some epic, some funny, some awful. But occasionally a film comes along completely out of leftfield which takes you completely by surprise.
I had no idea about what I was letting about myself in for when I bought my ticket for ‘The Book of Eli’, with Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. Although I had seen the trailer – which made it look like an action film – I wasn’t expecting what I got.
The film starts slowly and it takes a while to figure out what’s going on – but that’s not a bad thing. It begins with one camera shot of a cat creeping up on a dead body, and without giving it away, what happens subsequently kind of epitomizes the theme of the film. You think you’ve figured it out, and then something totally unexpected happens.
It soon becomes clear we are living in a post-apocalyptic world 30 years on, a world where virtually everything has been destroyed – books, computers, homes, fields, plants, animals. Where the way of life we in the west take for granted has all but disappeared, a world which has to start from scratch.
Not much has survived, and people born since the event cannot even read, because there are no books. Everywhere is deserted, bridges and cities burnt to the ground. We’re eventually told that a war on earth blew out the sky and allowed the sun to scorch the earth – everyone has to wear shades, because its so bright. Washington is reduced to cleaning himself with KFC hand-wipes, which is adds a slight bit of humour to what is otherwise a very serious film.
Oldman plays Carnegie, the man who eventually becomes Washington’s enemy. An extortionist, a capitalist and an opportunist. A man looking to profit from the disaster and rebuild things in his image, who abuses his partner and keeps her adult daughter in fear. His main objective is to find a mysterious book, and he has men searching everywhere to find it.
Coincidentally, Washington is secretly carrying a very heavy and precious book in his rucksack, the book of the title. However the identity of this book is kept a secret for the first half of the film, and not mentioned in name until the end. However, by half way through it becomes pretty clear what the book in question is.
After Carnegie and Washington’s initial meeting he sends his partners 20-something daughter, Soraya, (played with great depth by Mila Kunis) to sleep with Washington to convert him to his cause. Washington refuses, but agrees to let her stay with him overnight in order to satisfy. He talks about times past when what is now a prized commodity, like a bottle of water, was taken for granted, and has a sense of thankfulness despite having almost nothing. As he shares his food the identity of his book becomes clearer as he says a prayer of blessing over the meal – something completely foreign to Soraya, born into a world very different from the one Washington’s character remembers.
These two, after much sword fighting and gunfire, end up walking west together. She find her identity in his mission, and sees hope in Washington she had not seen before. She is desperate to read the book he has, but he is very protective of it, only reading it himself. One evening on their journey he quotes some words from this book. Words which will be familiar to many of us, but which to her are water in the desert. Words which are so familiar to us and we are hardened to, which are fresh and new and give Soraya hope.
The journey culminates in a showdown between Carnegie and Washington, which you think is the end of the film. But is only the beginning of the end. In the last 20 minutes everything begins to unfold. The identity of the book, what is written in the book and the true identity and purpose of Washington’s character, along with a subtle but powerful twist at the end.
I could tell you some of these and it wouldn’t it would spoil the film. But discovering these is part of the experience of watching this film. It invites you to engage with it and wants you to participate with Washington on his journey.
Ultimately, the messages of the film are several. It reminds us about how much, in a material sense, that we in the West have and take for granted, and shows us what’s really important in life, what we need to live – and shows us that survival isn’t just about having enough food and water. It shows us the importance of hope, it shows us that what we are familiar with and take for granted – or even ignore outright – can, in the right circumstances, become the only hope we have. It has a bit of action thrown in for good measure, which adds something to the atmosphere of desperation that is so prevalent in the world in which its set. But this isn’t the main message or purpose of the film.
Personally I really enjoy films like this. Social, cultural, political, and religious metaphors, a story which inspires and challenges us to think about what’s important in life, with a fair measure of (required) action thrown in for good measure. The main characters all play their roles very well and the script is very well written, without any real holes. The main characters are each strong in their own right, and carry the film well.
This won’t set box-offices alight in the way a traditional action film might. It’s not a film you can go to watch for sheer entertainment and totally switch off for. It’s a film you need to engage with and participate in, from beginning to end. A film which asks us questions about life, and about ourselves.
If you’re looking for your standard action film, which you don’t need to think about, then don’t bother with this. If you’re looking for a serious, thought-provoking, challenging and inspiring film which will leave you different from when you arrived, then give this a go. You won’t be disappointed.