By Eric Kohn | Eric Kohn January 14, 2010 at 6:46AM
What makes a post-apocalyptic story tick? In most cases, it's the perseverance of hope engulfed in irrevocable catastrophe. Consider the track record: Three "Mad Max" movies take place in a dreary wasteland. Each features Mel Gibson as a bloodthirsty wanderer with revenge on his mind and a scowl on his face. The character engages in epic battles and always wins out, but the world around him never changes. Things went to shit long ago and he can't fix that; he can only remedy the specifics of his personal situation. This pattern has a realistic streak: When the world as we know comes to an end, it's an every-man-for-himself situation.
Now take a look at "Waterworld" and the quest for dry land. I'm hardly down on this movie to the extent that popular consciousness has derided it for years, but there's something to be said for the cheesiness of its finale. Set up a world that has to start from scratch and then suddenly - poof! - a little bit of the old world comes to the rescue. Audiences know better than that. Envisioning a change to the way things work, they want to see how things work anew. At least, that's how this audience member feels.
Which brings me to "The Book of Eli." A slick, occasionally badass post-apocalyptic story in which Denzel Washington plays a hardened wanderer looking to safeguard the last King James Bible on Earth, the movie spends a solid half hour steeped in a fantastically crafted downbeat aura. The Hughes brothers, whose breakout film "Menace II Society" displayed their preference for dark stories about alienated characters, maintain an admirably detailed setting: Their world is steeped in evocative sepia tones that underscore their haunting vision of the future gone awry. Washington, as Eli, wields a sword with samurai-like precision as he continues on his path at all costs. His trajectory, however, becomes jeopardized when the corrupt ruler of a ghost town (Gary Oldman) decides he needs to get his hands on Eli's precious religious tome.
Gary Oldman in The Book of Eli; courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Gary Oldman in “The Book of Eli”; courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
But why, exactly? "The Book of Eli" lacks a clear-cut explanation for the value of the Bible in a dead world, so unless you're a religious sort and subscribe to one particular ideological persuasion, the character motivation rings a tad hollow.
Read the rest of my review at Moving Pictures.