What is it about movies and the apocalypse these days? It can’t all be blamed on post-9/11 syndrome. I was just recovering from “The Road” when along comes “The Book of Eli,” starring Denzel Washington as a wanderer in the wasteland of a proverbial not-too-distant future. It’s 30 years after what is doomily referred to as “the last war,” and water is so scarce that people bathe with leftover wet wipes from KFC.
Washington’s character is essentially nameless, although if you stick it out long enough – or bother to recall the movie’s title – you’ll know him as Eli. He makes his way across the charred, barren landscape with an impressive amount of fighting equipment strapped to his torso, which, when he undrapes, looks heavily scarred. He listens to music, at least I think he does, with what looks like an iPod. Guess those things can survive even an end-of-world blowout. He also zealously guards his prize possession, a heavy, leatherbound tome that he calls “the book,” although clearly it’s the Bible.
This book, or Book, is also coveted by a sleazoid named Carnegie (Gary Oldman, doing his smarmy specialty). Carnegie is a two-bit despot who has assembled a gaggle of gunmen and runs a makeshift town in the middle of nowhere. Like Eli, Carnegie remembers the days before the war, and this means he also remembers his Bible. But, unlike Eli, who is a man of peace (unless provoked), Carnegie spends his spare time charging the grovelly locals for water and poring over such tomes as “The Da Vinci Code” and a biography of Mussolini.
But the book he sends his minions far and wide to find is the Bible. He thinks that with it he can subjugate the world, although there doesn’t seem like a whole lot to subjugate. It’s like appointing yourself king of an auto wrecking yard in the middle of the Sahara. But apparently no copy survives until Eli shows up with one, and he’s not willing to part with it. Anyone who tries to separate Eli from his book ends up separated from himself.
Eli is the classic strong-silent Westerner, a pacifist warrior. He doesn’t go looking for fights; he does everything he can to avoid them, but don’t make the mistake of messing with him. If you do, he’ll turn into a dervish of destruction.
The codirectors, twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes, are best known for such blunderbusses as “Menace II Society” and the Johnny Depp-starring Jack the Ripper shocker “From Hell,” and here they appear to be extending their reach into the realms of kung fu. “The Book of Eli,” which has a deliberately ugly bleached copper look, is like a video-game mash-up of American and spaghetti westerns and Japanese samurai flicks.
It’s a man’s world out there in postapocalypse land. The Hughes Brothers’ attempts to work in a female love interest – or, to be more exact, a female presence – seem perfunctory. Eli is the recipient of a tag-along cutie named Solara (Mila Kunis), although he doesn’t seem at all interested. But he saves her from the obligatory roadside rape, thereby endearing himself to her. Solara wears designer sunglasses – another artifact that has miraculously survived the final war.
As a sort of messianic figure, Eli is in heavy company these days, not only the stragglers in “The Road” but also the US Marine-turned-Na’vi savior in “Avatar.” Carnegie takes one look at Eli and says, “He is not like other men,” then spends the rest of the movie trying to co-opt or kill him to prove “he’s just a man.” Eli just wants to “stay on the path,” plodding ever westward to the Golden Gate Bridge. (A good alternate title for this film would be “Escape to Alcatraz.”) Washington doesn’t look as if he’s having much fun, and who can blame him? Perhaps he agrees with me: Apocalypse movies, like apocalypse heroes, need some laughs, too. Grade: B- (Rated R for some brutal violence and language.)