Tuesday, May 04, 2010


Given my taste for kitschy incompetence, blaxploitation and the genius of Roger Corman, I don't often watch movies that are actually good. However I do occasionally manage to anaesthetise my snarking gland long enough to sit through something that's not half bad, and this is what I did a couple of weeks ago when I saw 'The Book of Eli'.

The first thing you should know about this movie is that it is absolutely nothing like the thing that the distributor is trying to market. It's not an action-packed post-apocalyptic rollercoaster ride. It's almost an arthouse movie - slow, strange and poetic, full of creative imagery rather than special effects.

The second thing you should know is that, while it has its faults, it's nowhere near as bad as many pundits, offended by its less-than-ambivalent embrace of Christianity, have claimed. The scorn and hatred are out of proportion with one small, metaphysical movie.

Many people feel threatened by religion, and especially by Christianity. It makes demands on them that they don't like. And in the current social climate, in which atheism is fashionable, there is permission for people to channel all of their hostility toward it. When you think about it, it shouldn't be remarkable that a sci-fi film might examine faith and religion. But those who see themselves as the guardians of sci-fi tend to be militant in their atheism, and they resent, in excess of all reason, any intrusion of religion into their realm and their refuge. Sci-fi allows them to dream of utopia without some bothersome deity getting in the way. Unfortunately if you do that what you end up with are patently religious concepts being stripped of their relation to god. A primary example would be Joss Whedon's 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', which embraced vampires but faltered when required to explain why they shrink from crucifixes and holy water. Or Russell Davies' Doctor Who, who couldn't be more "Jesus in a TARDIS" if he spoke in Aramaic.

Have a look at some of the bitchy, spittle-flecked reviews on imdb.com and it's clear that there are many who saw that the movie contained a Bible and immediately declared that it was the Worst. Movie. Ever. in a sort of self-imposed pavlovian response. Presumably if Eli had been carrying the last surviving copy of 'The God Delusion' they'd be praising the movie for its bravery and insight.

If three paragraphs of criticism of the critics seems a little excessive, it's only because the movie is so interesting from an artistic standpoint. And try saying that about 'Avatar' or the latest Harry Potter. It surfs a vast genre wave, full of classic American Westerns and Japanese tales of wandering samurai. The dream-like environment, full of scorched landscapes and lifeless skies and a viewpoint that drifts between the two, creates a sense of unreality which allows one to gloss over the many gaping plot holes. Played with less of a sense of allegory, these holes would wreck the movie, but because it's clearly a fantasy we can suspend disbelief a little higher.

The crux of the story is a basic dichotomy. Eli is a poor wanderer, carrying what seems to be the last surviving Bible west through a post-apocalpytic landscape in accordance with instructions given to him by a voice from God. Carnegie is the boss of a small town, not so much an outpost of civilisation as a congregation of people who haven't killed each other yet. Carnegie wants the Bible, but Eli refuses to turn from his task.

In Carnegie's hands, the Bible would reinforce his authority and right to absolute power, making him a pope as well as a king. It would give him the words, phrases and concepts he needs to exert more control.

In Eli's hands, by contrast, the Bible reintroduces notions of gratitude, grace and compassion into a blighted and vicious society. The scene in which Eli says grace over a meal, in a situation thick with threat and oppression, is remarkable in its potency. For such a quiet, stoic character Denzel Washington gives him a gentle vocal tone, with a suggestion of passion and confusion roiling beneath the surface. There's frequently a note of pleading in his voice when he's threatened by the bad guys - he knows what they don't know or have forgotten: that it doesn't have to be this way.

There is a trio of minor messages (and spoilers - be warned) that stayed with me after this movie. Firstly, these people may blame religion for the war, but the godless society that came after it is far, far worse. There's an implication that a lot more survived the apocalypse than exists in the movie's time, since there was a large enough population and enough organisation to destroy any and every religious text. From the war to the movie's time it's all been downhill.

Secondly, even the smug, faintly self-righteous humanists of the final scenes are merely characters, not heroes. Eli is the only hero. They only want to protect the Bible because they are intellectual completists. They hold the highest level technology, with their green grass and clean clothes, but there's an insinuation that despite their self-belief they're just as much the instruments of God as Eli.

Thirdly, if an old person plays Anita Ward's 1979 disco hit "You Can Ring My Bell" anywhere near you... run like hell.


Anonymous Matthew Jarvis said...

Great review. Loved the synopsis of Dr Who as "Jesus in a TARDIS". I bow before your mastery.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Troy G said...

I too bow before your wit, lest you should turn me into a were-bear as befell the effete hero of the Russo-Finnish co-production "Jack Frost".

Vis-a-vis atheism, in the videos of the beginning of the atheist convention in Australia, the attendees were wailing with happiness, singing at the top of their lungs and cheering whatever was said by whoever was on stage.

I challenge people to compare that scene with any video of praise-and-worship from Hillsong and number the differences.

11:03 AM  

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