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Monday, January 18, 2010

The Book of Rewrites

Denzel Washington stars in The Book of Eli

Caution: Major Spoilers Ahead. Seriously. Don't read this post until you've already seen The Book of Eli... unless you have no interest whatsoever in seeing the film. And if you don't... then you probably don't care about this post anyway. And if you did, and you LOVED it... then you probably don't want to read my criticism of it... So basically, this post is only for those people who already saw The Book of Eli, liked it, but didn't quite love it. So, um... Hi.


I'm a pretty big fan of the apocalypse. Or rather, what happens afterward. A common dinner conversation with me is: If the radioactive mutant zombies are taking over Seattle tomorrow, what would you pack the truck of your car with before heading for the hills? Seeds? Shotgun shells? Disinfectant? Skin moisturizer? Morphine? Pornography? Butane? Blank paper? Or would you skip the hills and try to make it on a decent sized sail boat? If you can avoid the inevitable pirates, perhaps that's the ticket to survival. I think about this stuff a little too much... perhaps because it asks us to think about what is truly valuable, and what we would miss the most if the infrastructure of our fair civilization completely collapsed.

The Book of Eli is a success. It's a good movie. The filmmakers took on a serious challenge in bringing this world and these characters to life. The undertaking is ambitious... not quite on the same scale as the Matrix or Lord of the Rings trilogies... but they still painted a gorgeous representation of the genre. While the Wachowski Brothers brought Cyberpunk to life, and Peter Jackson animated Middle Earth... The Hughes Brothers breathed arid virulent life into Post-Apocalyptia. And since I'm a fan of the genre, I left the theater wanting several more stories to be told in this exact same world.

The movie is like a video game. To be less kind, the movie is a video game... called Fallout. And the sequels have been quite successful... especially Fallout 3, the latest incarnation from Bethesda Game Studios. This entire film could have been the plot to Fallout 4 and it would have worked seamlessly. Fans of the game will notice the various stylistic details lifted straight from the Fallout universe, including the muted color palette and sandblasted landscapes, the use of certain weapons (did I notice a bottlecap mine in there?) desert raider culture, the mystical role of Christian theology, creepifying cannibals, and steampunk style scavenger-engineers (great to see Tom Waits properly cast.) The only thing missing was Ron Perlman. But Denzel did a better job as warrior/monk than Perlman would have anyway. (See The Mutant Chronicles for proof.)

I'm sure the filmmakers worried about people claiming they ripped off Fallout 3. Which is why they erred when it came to soundtrack choices. Fallout has a signature sound (the doo-wop sound of The Inkspots) that harkens back to an innocent 40's style America... when the American Dream thrived, and we started building bomb shelters and filming Duck and Cover educational films to protect it. The juxtaposition of this classic sound with a gritty post-nuclear wasteland is particularly haunting. When Denzel whips out his iPod and jams out to some sweet 70's soul music instead, I tried to play along. But having the old cannibal couple George and Martha crank up a vintage record player and spin disco classic Ring My Bell? Not really funny or haunting. They should have just given the nudge-and-wink hat tip to Fallout and given us 30 seconds of The Inkspots instead. It would have been the classier move and made a lot of fanboys happy.

Then there's the whole Zatoichi-style blind swordsman hook. Toward the end of the film it's revealed that the main ass-kicking character is blind. It feels strangely tacked on and I spent a long time thinking back to every scene trying to remember if there were telltale signs that Denzel's Eli was sightless. It would just be an unnecessary strain on our disbelief, but then they reveal a plot device in which the contested Book turns out to be in Braille. So just when you thought the evil Carnegie would prove unstoppable, it turns out he's screwed. And evil's defeat is doubly poetic since Carnegie was such a bastard to his blind wife, who was the only other person who could have read the Braille manuscript. And if cribbing Zatoichi isn't bad enough, Eli's loss of the book sets up a Fahrenheit 451 ending. His daily reading has allowed him to memorize every word... which he spills to a scribe as he lays dying from a mortal gunshot wound. When your denouement mainly consists of gluing together a Japanese pulp hero and a Ray Bradbury gimmick, you could use a little editing.

So I propose a modest rewrite to the final act. In my version, Eli can be blind or not. It doesn't matter. It should probably be scrapped though, because it distracts from what is otherwise a fairly believable world. Leave the blind superheroes for Daredevil comics. He doesn't have to be blind to have memorized the entire bible, just devoted. In my version, Eli still winds up going west to the promised land and delivering the King James Bible to the scribes. He still finds his peace and there's hope that some folks will use the Word for their spiritual betterment.

But, there should remain an uncomfortable duality. If Eli isn't blind, then the Bible he carried would have been legible. Paid for in blood and betrayal... Carnegie too should have the Word. The film created a brilliant paradox about the Bible being useful to those who would exploit, manipulate and subjugate the fearful masses; and those who seek it as a script for spiritual emancipation. The official ending short circuits this contradiction. The gritty realism is reduced to a morality tale and a testament to faith. The far better ending would be for Eli to find his haven, while Carnegie is left plotting in the squalor of his own little fiefdom of hell. Rather than a Hollywood ending, we would see that both have used the Book for their own ends... and the world will have to deal with their coexisting and opposite outcomes.

I was willing to buy into Denzel's defense of the scripture. In fact, it was often beautiful. I just wanted to see it balanced with an equally valid prosecution.



At 1/23/2010 01:57:00 PM, Blogger lowcoolant said...

I thought this movie was total garbage. It reminded me of a movie called "Hardware" from the early 90s. Meandering, full of half-baked ideas, characters from some halfway point in an adventure that's never explained or resolved. Your review doesn't tell anyone why they might or might not like "Book Of Eli," but any movie that vacillates at will between fiction and nonfiction is a waste of time, at least for me.

I found it impossible to care about any of the characters and was so bored that I walked out, which is saying a lot considering it was about post-nuclear-apocalypse life and had some bloody limb-severing scenes. And archery.

As I was leaving, the girl was preparing to go back to her hometown, possibly to kill the villain and his henchman. Did she? Who knows. Who cares. Even the possibility of another action scene wasn't enough to keep me in my seat.

At 1/23/2010 05:51:00 PM, Blogger John said...

The credits started rolling before you made it out of the theater. You didn't miss anything. But you can still chalk it up as a film that you've walked out on if you prefer. :)

At 2/08/2010 01:26:00 PM, Blogger John said...

Also: this post clearly isn't for you, since you strongly disliked the movie. This is a post about my ideas for a few revisions that would have bumped the film from 3 stars to 5 in my book.

I wouldn't presume to tell you why you should like the film. But the reasons I liked the film relate back to my paragraphs about the dual usage of The Bible... both as personal savior and as mass enslaver. It was an interesting bit of storytelling to set in the post-apocalypse.


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