The Book of EliWednesday, February 8, 2012 16:38
I was probably among the earliest to hear about this film if only because the story was written by Gary Whitta, a prominent QT3 member, and he posted about the project years before it made it onto the silver screen. It sounded like a standard Hollywood action movie, with some religious overtones that I usually dislike, so I didn’t make watching it a priority. So when I finally did watch it, I was pleasantly surprised by how much nuance it has and how intelligently it handles the religious theme.
For those who don’t know, Whitta was involved in founding the UK edition of PC Gamer magazine, so he has deep roots in videogaming way before he made it big in Hollywood. He’s also a big fan of Fallout 3 and as a gamer, I’m ticked by how it was an unmistakable source of inspiration for this film. There’s the obvious monochromatic look of the film for one thing and the concept of a heavily-armed lone wanderer walking across the post-apocalyptic landscape on a vital quest. At one point Eli is walking along an elevated highway and is nonplussed to see that it has shattered, a scene perfectly replicated from Fallout 3.
But there are also the stereotypical RPG behaviors. In one early scene, Eli finds a corpse, notices it has a nice pair of boots and grabs them as an upgrade. “Sweet”, he mutters to himself. When he comes to a town, he opens his pack and out tumbles all manner of odds and ends with which he then proceeds to barter for necessities. He proffers a blanket in exchange for water and when the storekeeper demurs throws in a pair of gloves as a sweetener. Which RPG player hasn’t done that a million times? Eli even pulls out all manner of weapons seemingly out of nowhere!
The portrayal of post-apocalyptic America isn’t quite perfect. Ammunition seems unrealistically plentiful though arguably Fallout 3 suffers from that problem as well. While most people look suitably battered and worn down, Mila Kunis looks like she stepped in from another movie. Overall the tone isn’t quite as dark as John Hillcoat’s The Road, but it’s still plenty dark enough.
Since a QT3 member wrote the script, QT3ers had a unique opportunity to ask Whitta all manner of questions about the film, resulting in 19 page long spoiler thread. Some of the questions relate to small but interesting details, such as how minutely the script described the first and utterly fantastic fight scene under the bridge (quite succinctly in fact as the actual details were left to the fight choreographer). Predictably, many people also used the thread to gripe about all sorts of inconsistencies, such as discrepancies over distances traveled and observed traveling time and so forth. But naturally, the most pressing question was: did God really accord Eli supernatural protection for the duration of his quest?
Whitta’s reply in this case was a cautious “In my opinion, yes.” This certainly makes the incredible feats Eli performs in the movie a lot more plausible, particularly in light of the twist at the end that I won’t spoil here. But it does raise the stakes. Eli’s book turns from being a mere MacGuffin into an artifact with real power and it makes the God of the film into more than just a font of spiritual support. This becomes a fire and brimstone God, with real power to endow the faithful with supernatural power and smite down heathens. Great for action movie sensibilities but a little sad too since it downplays the balanced portrayal of how religion can be used both for good and for evil. The main villain’s plot after all is to use religion to gain control over the downtrodden masses who are desperately seeking some way to make sense of the world.
Overall, I liked the movie a lot more than I thought I would. It has good action scenes, particularly the hand-to-hand combat sequences that are filmed using long takes so you can tell what’s going on instead of resorting to lots of quick cuts. The treatment of religion is more balanced than I thought it would be and even if the tacit inclusion of other religions at the very end strikes me as mere political correctness, at least the producers’ hearts are in the right place. Denzel Washington made for a more interesting and novel action hero than the Hollywood norm and as a gamer, I really dug all the videogame references.