Maybe it is something in the water (or oil?), but American imperial pop culture suddenly seems to have taken over by some strange apocalyptic vision. Novels like M.T. Anderson’s Feed and James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand; television shows like CBS’ “Jericho,” ABC’s “Lost,” and Fox’s “24;” and recent films like The Road, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by the deeply bleak but strangely compelling writer Cormac McCarthy all construct stories of a civilization teetering on the brink, or already engulfed in flames.
“Art mirrors life,” as the old saying goes, and sometimes, art even anticipates life, creating fictitious futures that, if grounded in some prescient or prophetic vision, may help us real-life denizens of this thing we call “reality” wrap our heads and hearts around the emerging realization that our new 21st century is shaping up to be very little like the 20th.
“The Book Of Eli” is such a film. Set in the not-too-distant future, the movie stars Denzel Washington as the aptly-named Eli/Walker, a lone and mysterious figure who makes his way westward against a blasted wasteland that once was American consumer civilization in all of its materialistic glory. Charred cars, blackened human bodies, emaciated kitty cats, collapsed bridges, the remains of KFC wrappers and mp3 devices – all the tropes of life after “The Flash” – are immediately brought to bear in scenes that look and feel very much like The Road. This post-nuke world is one Thomas Hobbes recognized: life is nasty, brutish and short, powerful men dominate, women are relegated to servants, sous chefs, and sex objects, and children seem completely absent. Lucky them.
Eli/Walker is well-equipped to cope with the frightening obstacles that immediately block his path as the film opens – most menacingly, marauding gangs of deformed men who pillage, rape, and kill at will. Turns out, Walker is handy with knives, bows, and guns – and proves his bad-ass mettle by dispatching two posses of bad guys in the film’s opening scenes with little more than a few whispered words and some well-timed martial arts maneuvering. Things get a bit more complicated, however, when Walker finds himself in a frontier town run by a sinister baddie named Carnegie (played with a bit of a smile by Gary Oldman). Carnegie serves as the town’s “mayor” (for lack of a better term), and works his will by – surprise! – physically abusing women, wielding threats through his organized gang of thugs, and verbally abusing his underlings. Ho hum. This has all been done before, and even Denzel Washington’s cool persona doesn’t quite kick in enough to keep the viewer from stifling a few yawns.
But then, things get a bit more interesting. Turns out, Carnegie is looking for a special book (hint: the Bible) that he believes will give him the power to restore civilization to the burnt-out landscape (in a brief but funny scene, we learn that The DaVinci Code doesn’t make the cut – when his men bring him several copies, Carnegie orders them all burned.) Eli/Walker is in possession of some sort of a book, as it turns out (See hint above), and Carnegie, deciding that this is the book he seeks, sets out to wrest the text from Walker, by femme fatale or force, if necessary.
How events play out I leave for you to discover. Suffice to say, though, in the Age of the Image, it is refreshing to have so much post-apocalyptic attention paid to, yes, a BOOK. While the film leaves this typography-might-save-humanity theme grossly underexplored, to its detriment, there are a few interesting surprises that unfold before film’s end. And it is somehow comforting to think that books – those tangible cultural, historical and even sacred artifacts that connect us with generations and civilizations that have come before, now ignored in a world of Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube – might offer us some sort of continuity as we collectively move into what will surely be interesting times ahead.
And the film’s ending is actually worth the wait. To say more would ruin the surprises.
Can I get an Amen, brothers and sisters?