The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli is another addition the post-apocalyptic science fiction genre, a genre that is typically filled with disparate theories about the nature of man, the will of the human spirit, and the psychological effects that tragedy and destruction may render. The Book of Eli isn’t really about those things. It’s about the Bible.

Sort of.

The film does somewhat reference the nature of man, in that even in the worst of scenarios, man is bound by his innate desire to dominate other men. However, in The Book of Eli, the central story arc is on the possession of the Bible, formerly the number one best seller and now one of the rarest of books in the world. Eli is on the road headed west and carrying a copy of it, acting as a guardian for those who would do to it whatever was done to all of the other Bibles in existence before the apocalypse. Without getting into too much more detail, the other contributor/editor of Reviews: Outside The Box, Adam Miller and I got together to review the film. Here is what came up when we discussed The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman and directed by Albert and Allen Hughes.

Micah: What did you think about the acting?

Adam: This is a tough category to judge. Ultimately, the acting is inconsistent. Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman are excellent actors and I wasn’t completely turned off by their roles, but their characters were lacking room to develop. As far as the rest of the cast, it just felt like a bad Mad Max remake. There was no originality.

I was really looking forward to seeing Denzel in a Post-Apocalyptic action movie, but I guess there is a good reason why he hasn’t done it before: he just didn’t fit. It’s like eating sloppy-joes on fine china or eating off of paper plates at a five star restaurant. It’s harder still when you compare his acting with previous roles. Washington’s character in Man on Fire was incredible, but this character in The Book of Eli doesn’t even come close to revealing his talent.

Micah: I agree. Denzel is one of the most sellable actors of our generation but he seems a little bit out of his element here. His “too cool for school” style is appropriate and even brilliant in some roles (Man On Fire, Training Day) but it just doesn’t fit for all of the characters he plays. I thought Gary Oldman had just the right touch of aristocratic sanity and feverish madness all tied up into one package, but as you said, he just doesn’t have enough material to pull off “evil” in this role.

That fault lies largely with the director(s). They are the painter of the picture and it is their job to create the atmosphere, establish the archetypes and then set the story in motion. The atmosphere is one of the films strongest areas thanks to the excellent cinematography that really sets the viewer into the aftermath of the apocalypse. The low contrast levels give us a world that is in a constant state of murky, sepia-toned drab. Its function is to blur the clarity of a world in black and white – a perfect tone for a post-apocalyptic story. Unfortunately, the characters that populate this world that are less convincing. We know Eli (Washington) is good and Carnegie (Oldman) is bad but Eli is not good enough to be good and Carnegie, as his antagonist, is likewise: a little bland as a baddie. Eli is more of a soldier than a prophet and spends more time slicing up his enemies than he does preaching to them. Unfortunately, the film is too short to really delve into it’s characters, always seemingly more concerned with the action sequences than the richness of the story.

What did you think about the direction?

Adam: Well, this is another area of mixed feelings for me. I also thought that the color and tone of the movie were great, but the acting was poorly directed. As directors, the Hughes brothers weren’t able to get the best out of their cast, and perhaps could have done better in the casting process to begin with. There were scenes of brilliance (i.e. when Eli steps back into the shadows in the first actions sequence only revealing a wide angle shot of the silhouettes or during the shoot out in the house scene) but there were several things that just didn’t make sense to me. One of the first things I noticed was the plethora of sky shots showing billowing clouds. One of the key elements to the story is that they have been in a drought for decades and Carnegie is guarding the water rights. Perhaps this was just a glitch in the story, but wouldn’t a sky full of clouds signify that there would be rain?

It’s hard to determine if this is just poor execution or if the fault lies with the story itself. There are too many conflicting details for this story to make sense. Unfortunately I can’t discuss them without revealing some of the intricacies of the plot. What happens at the end of the movie left me utterly confused. The writers poorly try to wrap up the story with a conclusion that wasn’t properly set up. The visuals and narrative were not direct enough. Even after everything was explained I was trying to figure out where or how it happened. There are other movies within this genre that do a much better job at presenting the elements of the plot in a more effective manner. Ultimately, it doesn’t fit together or fully explore its own potential. Am I wrong here? What do you think Micah?

Micah: I wasn’t confused by it but I do agree with you about the ending. I think it was trying way too hard to “wow” the audience and it comes off as one of the most dubious attempts at a twist that I’ve ever seen. The payoff is probably not as big as the filmmakers wanted it to be, and the whole story hinges on the ending. It’s very likely that viewers will walk away unconvinced. That said, I still think the biggest letdown of the film is that it lacks humanity, a characteristic that the genre usually focuses on and what makes films like Children of Men, Mad Max and The Road so moving.

Our Take

There have been a few popular films that recount stories in the Bible (The Nativity Story, The Ten Commandments, The Passion of The Christ) as well as some more loosely based fiction involving biblical characters and/or motifs (The Matrix, Ben Hur), not to mention pure fiction with a few liberally applied biblical references and themes (Monty Python’s Life of Brian, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar). But for a film in which the possession of the Bible itself takes such precedence, one would have to wonder what kind of treatment would it receive. Would someone in the film finally quote something from the Bible that is not from the Old Testament? Would the Bible be referred to as The Word of God or is it just another book with valuable life lessons? Would the Bible finally be brought into a movie to show that when the ways of men fail, God is there as an ever present help in time of trouble?

Don’t get your hopes up.


Adam gives this movie 2 out of 5 stars. “Don’t waste your time if you’re looking for a captivating story.”

Micah gives it 2.5 out of 5 stars. “Eli unfortunately only succeeds as an action movie and offers very little about the human race or their ability to deal with ‘the end of the world as we know it.’ ”

Note: This film is rated “R” for brutal violence and language. Know your limits and be discerning.

About Micah Lovell

Once I ate four brussell sprouts just to say that I could actually do it. O.K. I lied. I only managed to eat two.
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8 Responses to The Book of Eli

  1. Amber Monroe says:

    Nice format.

    I totally agree. I was most disappointed with Denzel’s character, especially because I believe him to be a talented actor. He seemed to keep the audience at arm’s length and his overall performance lacked fluctuation (not quite sure what other word to use here). By that I mean he was pretty austere, not showing much emotion, keeping it fairly level…but not in a good way. He may have done this on purpose, I’m not really sure. If it was purposeful, it just didn’t jive. At all.

    I was talking with a friend who genuinely loved the movie, so I engaged him in conversation about it because I was eager to find out why any Christian would genuinely enjoy it. His main reasons for enjoying it were (1) the artfulness of the fight scenes (you mentioned the silhouette fight scene, which, admittedly, was well-executed) and (2) the very fact that it’s about the Bible. He conceded that it wasn’t an accurate portrayal of the Scriptures and that he didn’t expect it to be because….well, it came out of Hollywood. But he says that the very fact that Hollywood is making movies about the Bible is a step in the right direction. He told me about a Christian friend he has who works in Hollywood. This friend said that movie makers are trying to make their films more conducive to families and people with tighter convictions than the average movie-goer. I take this with a pretty big grain of salt because (1) I don’t know this person or what she really knows about the inner-workings of the movie industry, (2) The Book of Eli itself doesn’t seem to fall into the category of “family film”–I mean, replace the Bible with Tom Sawyer and you’ve still got an R rated movie, and (3) I have to ask why movie makers would cater to the more sensitive among us when we are certainly the minority and are not likely to be much of a help at the box office–just seems like awful marketing strategy.

    I can’t really argue with this guy about his aesthetic tastes. But I’m not sure what I think about this movie being a “step in the right direction” just because it’s “about” the Bible. Granted, I only saw this film once and all I have to go on as far as critique is the general impression I had that it was lame and that there weren’t a whole lot of redeeming qualities. I think I may have been a bit harsh in my own review regarding the use of Scripture passages within the film. I can still appreciate a movie for attempting to portray good values, even when they don’t completely match up with what Christianity says, because the makers of those movies are coming up from beneath Christianity. So as a Christian, to accept these portrayed values as perfectly good and true would be a digression. But for an unbeliever, it may very well be a step up (if that makes any sense). In light of this, then, it would be fairer, as a Christian, to tear apart movies like Left Behind or Fireproof for what they do to the Scriptures (and, secondarily, to art) than to critique movies like The Book of Eli by the same standard. No, I don’t expect Hollywood to accurately capture the essence of God’s Word. But—even in setting this failure aside—The Book of Eli is still a flat-out poorly made movie.

    • Adam Miller says:

      Wow, you do have some emotional impressions of the film. LOL.

      As far as Hollywood marketing to family values, I do see how that would be advantageous for them. The Christian book industry is a monster economically. I’m sure they’re trying to rake in some of that cash. I’m not so sure I’m approving of the method, but it is kind of nice when they do something well. Unfortunately they usually do a terrible job (Prince Caspian, A Walk to Remember) in the hopes that Christians won’t be able to distinguish bad art from good morals (and they usually can’t). I’m hoping, through this reviews site, to teach people the value of understanding and appreciating art forms.

  2. Rachel says:

    Hm. Jonathan and I loved this film. We had a group of people over a few nights after it came out on DVD and they loved it too (Jonathan actually saw it in the theatre 2 days in a row; one of the guys who came over to watch it at our house had already seen it the night before). I don’t think there is anything particularly “Christian” about the film; yeah, the guy is carrying a Bible but the movie is really about faith more than any one religion (as indicated by the shot of all the books on the shelf at the end). That didn’t bother me b/c I wasn’t looking for a “Christian” film, nor do I, even as a believer, want to watch a film that preaches at me.

    I love Gary Oldman and I appreciate that he was a subtle kind of villain, not the stereotype we’re so used to seeing in these kinds of films. Denzel wasn’t Oscar-worthy, but I think he portrayed Eli with understated elegance. Yeah, there was definitely some mad-max-cliche kind of moments/characters, but that was the world of the film these guys created. And overall the ending worked for me. We went back to watch it a second (and third time) because you really do see those moments (when you’re looking for them) that make you go OH. Ok. They’re indicating that HERE. The moments are subtle, but present. And while overall the ending is “unbelievable,” I think that connects into the theme of faith in the film. There is an element of the supernatural, the unexplained, and I think it worked.

    I thought Book of Eli was entertaining as an action film with nice little moments of humor (the Johnny Cash line is my favorite) and while there was no grand level of depth, I connected with it on a human level more than I do most action films. Or even post-apocolyptic films. There is a gut-wrenching moment for me towards the beginning of the film when Eli crosses paths with murderers and doesn’t stop them. I hate him, the “hero,” in that moment. And I respect the creation of heros that don’t always do what’s right and villains who aren’t always masochistic psychos. They’re much more…human. And when he prays for forgiveness for knowing the words but not always living by them…well, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

    • Adam Miller says:

      I can understand why people would really connect with this film. I had the problem of comparing it to other films that I already love and I just didn’t connect with it. There were just too many things I wish they had done better. Still, your reaction to it is good. There are some movies I love that other people hate, but I’ve got strong sentiment for loving them.

      Have you ever seen Zatoichi? You should check it out. I think You and Jonathan would like it. There is an old black and white Japanese series and then there is a contemporary remake with dubbing. You’ve got to love dubbed films.

  3. Micah Lovell says:


    I really wasn’t “looking” for a Christian film either, but you’d have to think that when the protagonist carries around a Bible for 7/8 of the movie (not to mention having memorized it), something would come up – no? I’m not saying it had to preach the Gospel but I thought we’d at least get farther than the most easily recognizable quotations. My only point of mentioning it’s actual lack of anything biblical is because I did want to clarify that this is NOT a Christian film as some people have claimed that it is hearing the synopsis.

    Performance wise, I think there is a world of difference between “understated” and “undeveloped.” We’ve seen the tortured hero act from Denzel Washington before, specifically in Man on Fire. He wants to be good, he tries to be good but in the end, as one character says “Creasy’s [Washington] art is death. He is about to paint his masterpiece.” I don’t think that applies here. I think his character is more undefined than it is understated.

    It’s a movie that I’ll watch again I’m sure. I really, really did not like the ending but there were enough things going for it on a technical level, specifically the cinematography, that would warrant more than one viewing. Also, I love the genre. I was simply underwhelmed.

  4. Sarah Finlay says:

    Hmmm. I did not like this movie. There was alot of foul language which was distracting. It was to violent for me. I hate when movies show girls being raped. That is not art it’s just perverse. There were a couple of those scenes in the movie. I thought the movie was gross more than anything. I felt that way with the Mad Max movies too.

    • Adam Miller says:

      Yeah, it’s a little dismal for the context: preserving the Bible. I guess they were trying to show a contrast between good and evil but they didn’t make a clear enough distinction.

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