If you've been reading SCI FI Wire regularly, you might have noticed my obsession with post-apocalyptic survival movies. In that context, let me declare that The Book of Eli is the best of the post-apocalyptic movies. It's the most thrilling of the post-apocalyptic thrillers. It's the most exciting post-apocalyptic thriller I've ever seen. Yes, I've seen The Road Warrior. This is madder than Mad Max and more legendary than I Am Legend. I'm just blatantly praising the hell out of this one. There's not a single moment I didn't like in this movie.
Finally a movie addresses the smell of the apocalypse. We've seen all the dirty bandits of Mad Max, Waterworld and The Road, but Eli (Denzel Washington) actually uses the smell of the roadside bandits to prepare himself for battle. You see how he survives and defends himself, even how he stays out of other people's troubles.
Eli is traveling this wasteland carrying a book on his back. The book locks with a key, and he reads it every night. The filmmakers say it's okay to say what the book is, but since the movie doesn't I'll leave it open for interpretation. They kind of tell us along the way. It should be that way. It's obvious to anyone who picks up the cues, but it's never spelled out for us.
It's not so important what the book is. What's profound is how both the heroes and the villains recognize the power they could wield with it. They live in a society of illiterates, so any knowledge is some power. First of all, there's a bad guy who wants books. How cool is that? It is true that this book has already shown power in the real world, so he's only following in history's footsteps. This is a thrill ride with something to say.
The event that caused this apocalypse is vaguely referred to, but it yielded some glorious disaster. Burnt-out highways and freeways really demonstrate how things we pass every day would only be a set for an action movie once it was all ruined. Strip malls with familiar signs serve a very different purpose now, and a certain bridge looks fantastic in this state too. This apocalypse is a gray/green color. That's totally different from the plain gray of The Road or the brown of Terminator Salvation.
I'm not saying the film is totally original. I recognize the common elements of both post-apocalyptic movies and general action movies. Some stuff happens exactly as it did in The Road Warrior, and of course there's the whole indestructible lone hero against a gang of gun-toting thugs. They're not pretending this is the first lone hero or ambitious political villain. They're just rocking it.
All the action is great. Each fight scene and shootout has a visual gimmick that justifies doing another movie fight or shootout. They didn't have to go that extra mile, but it's even cooler that they did. The best part, though, is that it has an intellectual climax.
This is a perfect movie to me. Brilliant and masterpiece are not words I use lightly, but Book of Eli would have been the best movie of 2009 if it had come out a month ago. You won't see a more compelling movie all year. Combining the sophisticated and visceral, The Book of Eli can thrill our souls and stimulate our minds.