The post-apocalyptic has a certain fascination, doesn’t it? I suppose that the origin of the genre is Robinson Crusoe – because after the world has ended, we are all alone on an island. Robinson Crusoe has a powerful grip on the imagination of our society, spawning numerous imitations and homages, dubbed “Robinsonades”. Crusoe on his island is the last man in the world in every practical way, until Friday arrives, when he’s one of two. The savages he encounters are not human in function: they are an animal force of nature.
Crusoe sets about improving the island using Protestant Work Ethic ™, eventually creating pretty passable conditions for himself, despite the circumstances. Civilization can be re-built by the lone man, something H G Wells’ Time Traveller aspires to himself, taking three books to rebuilt what was lost.
The Lord of the Flies presents a less optimistic perspective on human nature. The group descents rapidly into barbarism – where the lone man can remain refined, the group implodes.
The post-apocalyptic movie often haunts the space between these two views of humanity. Often you have a group of people, a couple of whom are builders, and more of whom are destroyers. It is not inevitable that the lone upright man is triumphant, but I think that is the question we are meant to ask in response to the world’s end. Is one good man enough?
In Book of Eli, Denzel Washington, Eli, is that one man. He’s travelling west with a book, on a mission from God to deliver it to a place where it can do good. His path, naturally, intersects with a society that has given in to its baser urges on many fronts. Gary Oldman wants the book too- it is, he says, a weapon that will allow them to crush all their foes with its words.
That book? The cornerstone of the civilization to be rebuilt? The Bible. The film picks up these threads of civilization and unambiguously and unsubtly aligns them with the Christian faith. Eli is fighting not to save humanity, but to save the Christian faith from annihilation. He watches passively as people he could save are killed, in case the book becomes threatened.
And that’s all the film does. It doesn’t attempt to make any engagement with why a book like the Bible might be important, about the meaning of the Christian faith, or how it could save people living after the end of the world. Nor does it attempt to make any arguments about why society is not functioning well without it. It does not try and explore Gary Oldman’s character – he is a one-dimensional despot, bent on obtaining the book.
As a spectacle the movie performs a little better. The cinematography is really beautiful and the sets totally convincing. It uses a spectrum-shifted photography that leaves the people looking relatively normal, but the world washed out and bright. The choreography for the action sequences is also precise, controlled, and essentially beautiful. However, there isn’t really enough pure spectacle to carry the dead weight of the characters and “story”.
In short, the film has absolutely no depth – everything it says is right out in front, and it doesn’t have much to say. It is thus extremely disappointing, because it neither speaks to the hopes of Robinson Crusoe, nor really the fears of Lord of the Flies. It is a throw-away work not worth watching or remembering.