No one should ever underestimate the importance of timing, so being the third sci-fi end-of-the-world film in the past few months is a heavy cross this hybrid concept must bear. After “2012” and “The Road,” there’s not much new to say about the post-apocalypse, or is there?
For 30 years, a mysterious traveler, Eli (Denzel Washington), has wandered west through the charred wilderness that once was America, carrying the world’s only remaining Bible, a leather-bound King James version, in his knapsack. Dodging danger in the desolate cities with their fallen skyscrapers and crumbling cars on the ravaged highways, he’s adroit with a knife and a gun. But he’s also a pensive loner in designer sunglasses who tells himself, “It’s not your concern” when he’s not listening to his iPod.
Only this enigmatic, humorless true believer/road warrior and a few others remember what it was like before a cataclysmic war destroyed everything; now young people no longer know how to read. But cruel, avaricious Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the self-proclaimed dictator of a repopulated outpost, covets that Good Book for his own nefarious purposes. Then there’s Carnegie’s blind, abused mistress, Claudia (Jennifer Beals), and her rebellious daughter, Solara (miscast Mila Kunis from “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”). And, in a bizarre twist, Malcolm McDowell surfaces in the final few minutes.
Conceived as a pretentious Western by video-game creator Gary Whitta – with some rewrites by Anthony Peckham – directed by twins Albert and Allen Hughes (“From Hell,” “Dead Presidents,” “Menace II Society”) and photographed in sepia tones by Don Burgess, it delivers a grim, Christian message that’s filled with excessive, brutal violence. Reportedly, as a child, playing at his mother’s beauty salon, Denzel Washington was influenced by a patron, a neighborhood fortune-teller, who predicted he would speak to millions, in the way of a preacher, and that predisposed him not only to do this project but also to co-produce it.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Book of Eli” is drab, solemn 6, delivering bloodshed that’s punctuated by poetic psalms.