In a clever bit of marketing, the word ‘Believe’ fades in around the letters e,l,and i as the title The Book of Eli fades out during the film’s trailer, but I can’t help but think it would have been more appropriate for the word ‘Belie’ to appear, as in ‘fail to fulfill or justify (promise or hope).’
Not that I disliked the movie – in fact there are some very good aspects to it, most namely Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman – it’s just that I was a tad confused by it.
On one side there is a mysterious traveler named Eli (Denzel Washington) who has the world’s last bible in his hands. He hears voices directing him to walk west to deliver the Word of God to the one place where the people will know what to do with it. Apparently, he’s been walking for 30 years, so he must have come from the east coast. All we know about Eli is what he tells us and what we see, and at one point we’re given a glimpse of an old name tag in his bag: “Hi, my name is Eli” suggesting the stereotype of a humble man being the only appropriate prophet for the word of God.
On the other side, there’s Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a well read despot bent on finding a more divine mode of manipulating the people of the town he rules over. In ham-handed fashion, when we meet him he’s reading a book about the Italian fascist Benito Mussolini. Carnegie has been looking for the book that Eli carries for a long time.
“It’s not a book! It’s a weapon. A weapon aimed at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them,” Carnegie yells at his right-hand man when the latter questions why all of the effort for just a book. But if it smells like rose and looks like a rose, it must be rose. But if it fits all the criteria and it isn’t, well then it must be a metaphor.
In some ways The Book of Eli is a modern adaptation of the Adam and Eve allegory, but with a twist. Eli’s book is the metaphorical apple, its knowledge is sought after, but forbidden to all but those God decrees as worthy, and Carnegie isn’t one of them; neither, if you recall, were Adam and Eve. But it was the latter, who were originally tempted, manipulated, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say controlled by the serpent; this, as we have seen, is Carnegie’s intention: control. Like the serpent, Carnegie is silver-tongued. His intention is to whisper the words from the bible into the ears of the people of his new towns thereby subjugating them. He said as much. But he needs the book to get the words.
The twist is that this time God got it right. He guarded the knowledge by entrusting it to a protector, Eli. And Eli is a fierce and jealous protector. In fact, he is so much so that he turns old testament on anyone that gets in the way of his objective and spills blood – loads of blood – to keep it from the unworthy.
In this context, the story of faith transposed over an apocalyptic world presents a fresh perspective on a tired genre. Unfortunately, they couldn’t see it through. The film has some symbolism (what’s with the cats and the apparent epiphany that Carnegie’s right-hand man has?) but not enough to bolster the foundation of the retelling of the Adam and Eve tale.
This leads me to another possibility. Maybe The Book of Eli wasn’t intended to be a modern adaptation of the birth of man and I’m way off base. If so, then the movie is even more flawed, as there are just too many questions left unanswered. The biggest one being why would Carnegie need the book in the first place? His rule seems fairly secure. Why not continue with the way things have been? If this is the case then the limited symbolism and implied metaphors are all for not, and the film fails to fulfill or justify hope or promise. Everything falls apart, and The Book of Eli becomes merely a spaghetti western set after an apocalypse.
In the end, no matter my take on The Book of Eli things look shitty in the movie much as they do sometimes in the real world (minus the sepia images of a post-apocalyptic world running amok with cannibals), but it’s good to know that even in that bleak future pouty-lipped babes exist and Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman still kick ass.