Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is one of those movie rarities. It is an action movie that makes you think. Set in a post-apocalyptic landscape (yes, another one of those), The Book of Eli follows the travels of one lone wanderer who keeps very careful care of a mysterious and important book.

Day After the Fall

Post-apocalyptic movies seem more and more prevalent these days. From 2012 to The Matrix, 9 to Terminator: Salvation, the trend is one that is both interesting and unsettling. One could take measure of this trend and say that we enjoy movies about people surviving on a day-to-day basis without the complexities and murkiness of daily life. With these movies, the enemy is often very easy to see and concerns that dog us every day would no longer exist. This is part of the reason zombie movies are so popular. You don't have to worry about your day job or your homework when the zombies break out. Instead you get to do cool things that you couldn't before; you could go take over the mall, barricade the doors, then play with all the toys in the Apple store. You could go to the food court whenever you get hungry and just grab anything without paying. Sure, you would have to get something out of the freezer and make it yourself, but the point is that a post-apocalyptic world is one where all those silly laws and barries to fun and enjoyment are gone. You can ride shopping carts down an escalator for all you care.

Alternatively, perhaps post-apocalyptic movies are so popular these days because they act as a form of desensitization. Although the recession has ended, it sure doesn't feel that way, and watching a movie set in a wasteland subconsciously allows us to relax. Our jobs may suck. We may not even have jobs. But, hell, at least we aren't being pursued by crazy cannibals on motorcycles everytime we go get something to eat. At least we don't have to wash ourselves with hand moisturizers to try to clean ourselves. We don't have to kill people over a drink of water. Post-apocalyptic landscapes can be relaxing as well as liberating, as strange as it sounds.

Yet, oddly, the post-apocalyptic setting really doesn't seem all that important or dominating in The Book of Eli as it might have been. The reason is because of the plot. For the story to happen, it must be in a time after civilization's fall. There has to be a reason for this one book to be so valuable. And, after the skies turn gray and the landscape withers, books are one of the things doomed to fall apart, burn, and decay, making literature of all forms an unexpected rarity.

The Power of Words and Religion

It is very difficult to talk about The Book of Eli without revealing major plot points. But I will reveal that one of its central themes is that of religion and its capacity to affect people in positive and negative ways. Not what you would expect in a movie with a lot of action, but an interesting topical choice that resonates throughout the film. In The Book of Eli, we see two sides of religion: the personal side where people use religion and faith to act in moral ways, and the manipulative side where people use religion as a tool with which to control and influence others.

Before I start, though, I must point out that I am not religious. Yet, surprisingly, this did not affect my appreciation of the film. One of the most interesting things about the movie is how faith keeps the main character going, and it shows a good example of faith being utilized toward a benevolent goal. This personal touch and belief in religion is evident in everything Eli does, and this resolute determination towards achieving that goal is easy to empathize with, even for someone nonreligious. For, even if faith were not in the equation, it is admirable to see someone devote themselves utterly to some end or ideal. Uncompromising characters are easy to like, and it is those who compromise their beliefs who seem weakest in the end, even if those compromises are necessary and good.

On the other hand we have the manipulative side of religion, and its capacity to be used as a tool to affect others. As sad as it is to hear, history shows us an endless sequence of events where religion is utilized to get people to do things that they shouldn't. The Crusades were brought about by a religious call to arms against a region that had done nothing to deserve an enormous invasion. The introduction of monotheistic religions (belief in only one god instead of many) in ancient Rome brought about an era of religious persecution against those who refused to commit to a similar belief. Religions even today can still elicit inequality and questionable acts: a lack of women's rights among many Muslim countries, extreme Islam inducing men and women to explosively martyr themselves on others, extreme Judaism preventing any compromise in the Israel-Palestine region, the near decision to burn the Qu'ran in Florida, the inability of women to serve as Catholic priests, and the recent discoveries of pedophilia among many religious leaders across the world along with the failure to punish said leaders in a meaningful way. This is not to say that these acts are the norm for religious people (far from it), but these examples merely illustrate the darker side of how religion can work to cloud minds and occasionally induce destructive zealotry. The Book of Eli touches on this negative aspect of religion with regard to the villain and how he elects to use religion as an "opiate of the masses". This idea has historical precedence and is a warping of original intent that happens far too often.


All in all, The Book of Eli is an excellent movie about these twin facets of religion and how they might factor into a post-apocalyptic world. Denzel Washington represents Eli magnificently and he fits the role well. Given how easy it is for popular actors to simply act as themselves and get away with it, Denzel manages to avoid that pitfall completely. And, on top of what I said, there is much which I didn't touch on in respect to those who have not seen it. This movie is great and, so long as you are okay with a handful of brutal action scenes, is as rewarding as it is awesome.



  1. One interesting question arises at the very end of the movie: the religion that has driven Denzel across the country, one might even say miraculously led him, is shelved alongside a whole array of other religions. What is the purpose behind this? Are a select group reserving religion for some later use? Is the faith that inspires Eli laid aside and the remainder treated as mere knowledge? Will this ultimately be beneficial?

    The choice of a name for the character is pregnant in this movie. He is very clearly a prophet character, but in the end, it is difficult to see how far he has been able to fulfill this roll. The prophet in the Old Testament was sent to call a people back to God, and Eli did not have many opportunities to do this. Rather, he kept the book to himself, and refused to share it.

    One thing is absolutely clear in the setting of this movie: individuals need religion. Religion itself may be abused in the wrong hands, but the people as a whole are without hope or purpose. The one man who acts rightly, who has hope and purpose, is the one with religion, and as he shares this religion with others they share in his hope and purpose.

    There is a second dichotomy in the film: a civilization built without religion, and one built with it. The civilization built without religion is governed by a dictatorial rule, without respect for the people it rules. True, this government, this civilization, wants to find some religion so that it can us it to further subjugate its people, but it is clear in the movie that the authoritarian rule precedes any entrance of religion and so cannot be founded upon it. A second civilization is encountered at the end which is clearly built upon religion and values it. (The fact that they are collecting a whole variety of religions could be interpreted either as reinforcing this notion, that religion is good and necessary to society, or simply that the writers are unwilling to have their movie seen as endorsing a specific religion. Either way, it is irrelevant to my central point that they highly value religion.)

    My final comment is more of a criticism: you are making a very tenuous connection between women's rights in Muslim countries and the fact that women are excluded from the Catholic priesthood. To compare the "hardship" of women being disallowed from the priesthood with young girls being forced to marry against their will both does disservice to the plight of women in those Muslim countries and casts an unfair light on Catholicism. I don't even see how you could call that a hardship. There is a great deal more that might be said on the issue, but in short it is not a "right" that is denied to women, and therefor comparing it to human rights issues produces a false correspondence.

  2. You bring up a number of interesting points that I had not thought of when watching the movie myself. It is very enlightening to hear the opinion of someone who is actually religious on this movie focused on religion itself. Thank you for that.

    It was not my intent to make a direct connection between women's rights in Muslim countries and women excluded from Catholic priesthood. I mentioned both of those to provide examples of different religions being party to inequality in the current day. Hence, my use of the word hardship was the wrong one there and, basically, those were just the first two to come to mind. I am not making a comparison of the two.

    Consequently, I edited the post to clarify this, make sure that others do not make this mistake, and to provide a couple more examples. Hopefully this edit now makes my argument in a way that does not appear to be comparing specific religious acts to one another.

  3. "shelved alongside a whole array of other religions. What is the purpose behind this?"

    That was the Fantasy/Assorted Fiction shelf.

  4. Although probably not that, the placement of the book certainly did seem to indicate that the society at the end was not religious (as you suggested, Patrick). I imagine that if it were a Christian group they would have put the Bible somewhere more prominent or significant. Instead they merely seem appreciative of knowledge in all its forms, like a society of well-armed university professors in post-apocalyptic Alcatraz should...