I've often wondered what would happen if, following an apocalyptic war and two-thousand years, a new human civilization resurfaced, built upon the precepts of a religion that used as its sacred text a book written in, say, 2003. This could mean priests distilling the messages inherent in the text of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or The Time Traveller's Wife. Theologians could struggle to decipher the spiritual meaning of Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven or Brown's The Da Vinci Code. A considerable portion of the human population could end up following the holy rules and commandments outlined in Dude, Where's My Country?
In The Book of Eli, directed by the Hughes Brothers, the world-changing catastrophe, and event--or series of events--referred to as The War and The Flash, is much more recent, having occurred just thirty years ago. It was sufficient, however, to send civilization back into the Dark Ages and eliminate most forms of entertainment or instruction, including reading. In fact, books seem to have become a rare commodity and treated by several characters as antique curiosities, much as we think of medieval weaponry . . . or all royalty. But to a few characters, books are precious, and one book in particular is especially so. Eli, played by Denzel Washington, carries such a book, dipping into it on a daily basis, quoting from it when pressed to do so. Eli has been wandering this blasted world for thirty years, ever since The War/Flash, searching, he says, for a suitable place for his book.
For his part, Carnegie, played with suitable zeal and eloquence by Gary Oldman, wants the book for its power and ability to enslave people of weaker mind--which is just about everyone within a fifty-foot radius of the literate Carnegie.
I am not spoiling anything by revealing that the book is, of course, the Bible.
The revelation comes fairly early in the film, but the title itself is a giveaway. The capitalized word Book, followed by a quintessentially biblical name is a clue so obvious that they might as well have called the movie Eli's Bible or The Holy Book After a Big War and a Flash that Was Probably a Nuclear Explosion.
It's obvious, but it's a means to examine the real value of the Bible, its teachings, and that, in the end, that value is all in the interpretation. If one interprets the Bible as a means to subjugate, limit and control others, well, it's an evil thing. If, however, one sees it as a way to better one's life and those of others, well, it's a good thing. As such, it has, historically, been a very good thing and an absolutely horrendous thing. It's all in the interpretation.
But I can't help but feel that the filmmakers here missed a real opportunity. They've created a truly interesting world here, one that brings to mind Cormac Macarthy's post-apocalyptic landscape in The Road, given a couple decades to grow and develop. The visuals and tone are strongly defined through the use of desaturation and patient camerawork. It's a good-looking film and feels almost like a high-quality comic book movie, something based on source material published by Vertigo or one of the smaller imprints. It's just that it could have been more; it could have pushed a little harder. Why the Bible? We already know the impact the Bible can have and has had on human civilization. If the filmmakers wanted to explore the ways by which humans imprint their nature on a text written long ago, shaping its message to fit their goals, good or bad, why not pick a less obvious book? It would have been interesting if the viewer had been led to believe that Eli was carrying a Bible, only to reveal that the book Denzel had been reading and quoting from had been an anthology of twentieth-century poetry, or the collected works of Stephanie Meyer. Now that would have been a surprise. It also would have had me--and quite a few others, I'm sure--wondering exactly what kind of civilization such a religion, with such a holy text, would spawn. You see, I already know what kind of world the Bible can lead to . . . we all do.