There’s a reason why superheroes were originally dismissed as naive power fantasies for impotent men. Several, actually, but one in particular comes to mind: Superheroes represent and reflect ideals that society at large usually considers to be outmoded or outdated. When they save people, they (should) do it out of pure selflessness—a utilitarian sense of necessity that goes well beyond individual needs. Eli (Denzel Washington, armed with an omnipresent wince and a squint) in The Book of Eli is a lousy superhero because screenwriter Gary Whitta and directors Allen and Albert Hughes make him more of a necessary evil than a truly good guy. He’s born from a uniquely unsettling kind of cynicism, one that cloaks its misanthropy in the guise of holier-than-thou religious faith.
Eli is a compromised hero, one who assumes that, because the world is fallen, he’s better than everybody else (because God told him so). He has no obligation to immediately share his wealth of divine wisdom, and though his mission is in fact to spread the word of God, he does it in such a way that one can’t help but look askance at him. His faith is his strength, but it’s a selfish kind of faith, one that places the prophet and the medium that it’s communicated through before the essential lessons he’s guarding. Trust me: I’m a Jew. I know things.
This testament of faith disguised as a bit of post-apocalyptic science fiction is a failure on several levels. The first and most important is the way the film puts a disproportionate emphasis on the symbolic importance of the Bible. This is not a putdown of the Bible’s importance but rather the literal importance that Eli places on it. Forgive me for delving into academic jargon, but Eli treats the Bible like Baudrillard’s simulacrum. Which is to say that the meaning of the Bible has become interchangeable with the Bible as a symbol. The Bible in The Book of Eli is Christianity.
Eli covetously keeps his copy close to his chest for more concrete reasons which should not be spoilered, no matter how idiotic they may be. He refuses to let anyone see it, even Solara (Mila Kunis, playing her usual “pushy bad, but busty girly girl with a heart of gold”), who is eventually promoted from being a woman he protects to the badass that takes up Eli’s messianic burden. But ignoring the film’s twist ending, and looking just at the scenes where Denzel denies anyone a little peek at his Bible, it seems like Eli just doesn’t want anyone to have access to the “good book” but him.
That kind of anxiety is striking as it speaks to a reactionary persecution complex that I’ve seen in many fretful Christian friends, from the moderate to the, shall we say, more radical. These friends insist that their faith is not the faith of others, whether those “others” are more extreme in their beliefs or more moderate. The implicit assumption in that kind of thinking is that “their” religion is under attack from “other” people who know not what they pigeonhole. The film’s ideological foundation is accordingly rickety because it’s purely histrionic. Eli has to prevent others from seeing the Bible now to get people to learn its teachings later.
This is because it is thought to be the only copy of the Bible still intact after whatever unspoken crisis decimated the planet. Yes, that’s right, the most widely reproduced book in history, the one that the American Bible Association insists should be in every American hotel room, is now no longer in mass circulation. This might be less hard to swallow if one were to take the film as an allegory and Eli’s Bible as purely symbolic, but that kind of logic is a hard sell considering that the Bible itself is a series of allegories. By allowing Eli to so adamantly protect the integrity of a symbol about symbols, he overtaxes its value as a representational symbol and turns it into the representation of a system of belief that doesn’t exist in the film’s universe outside of bibilical sound bites.
Equally unsettling is the way the Hughes brothers haphazardly treat violence as if it didn’t relate at all to its protagonist’s message of Christian empowerment. While it’s a condition of the fallen world Eli must protect that he must kill and/or maim anything that gets in his—I mean his book’s way—with absolute accuracy, that doesn’t make humor at the expense of dead or hurt heathens any less queasy. The fact that Eli can’t miss is in itself more than a little campy, but it’s even more out of place to watch Eli hit a would-be rapist with an arrow that protrudes right out of his jeans like a surrogate chubby (What the hell happened to love thy neighbor? Fuck it, dude’s got an arrowhead for a mushroom tip).
Worse still, while the whole film looks like its aesthetic was cobbled together from some as-yet-unreleased Resident Evil game, the action scenes look like they’re all filmed with the know-nothing grace of the nerds who create the movie interludes in video games. This is especially the case in the shoot-out at Michael Gambon’s house (yeah, he has a cameo; sorry, but I couldn’t keep the piece completely spoiler free). The camera snakes in and out of places a human being could not and probably would not want to go during the fighting: underneath an exploding car, through bullet-riddled walls, right up to the bad guys as they open an exploding decoy Bible (yes, there’s another spoiler; I’M SORRY, OK?!).
The Hughes do this because they think it’s more dynamic to be led by the nose through a war zone that it is to see it coherently broken down through a montage of memorably choreographed footage. Again, that makes no sense in context, just as it makes no sense that one of the bad guys is always whistling “Cockeye’s Song” from Once Upon a Time in America. It’s just there, sans explanation or more of a mandate than the Hughes’s need to show Sergio Leone some love. Fellow agnostics, rejoice: if The Book of Eli is to be taken seriously (and I really doubt it is), the Emperor really has no clothes.
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, and the New York Press. He obsessively maintains a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.