The word Eli is the first word Jesus spoke from the cross— calling out to God. El is the most basic word for God in Hebrew, and Eli a form of that word. It is part of the name Elijah (Yahweh is God), or Elisha. But this movie is not so much about God as about his book– the Bible, a book for the ages, a book which can save the world, according to this movie. The cast of this movie is excellent— Denzel Washington, the son of a Pentecostal minister and a practicing Christian (on which see the article in Christianity Today— http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/movies/interviews/2010/denzelwashington-jan10.html)
plays Eli, a sort of guardian angel of the last remaining Bible on earth after the apocalypse. His mission– to take the Bible to the West, as in ‘go west young man all the way to the Golden Gate’.
Gary Oldman, one of the best character actors of our day, plays the evil counterpart of Eli— Carnegie (as in how to wins friends and influence people) a dictator of a small town, and at all costs he wants that Book, in order to control the people. His is a “Bible is the opiate of the masses view”. And then there is Tom Waits, the fix it man in a wonderful cameo appearance. Jennifer Beals, hardly recognizable as the one who was once in Flash Dance, plays the blind and abused wife of Carnegie, and Mila Kunis plays her daughter.
The film is in glorious sepia tone, the browns of a post-apocalypse brown out, the browns of the desert Southwest, the browns of a world which has fallen and can’t get up. Things are no longer black and white, especially when it comes to theology and ethics, that is, unless you are Eli, and Eli is not a man to be messed with. At all costs he must protect this book and get it to its destination. Eli has been guided by a voice in his head to find the book, and to head west. More than that, he cannot say. He moves by faith, not by sight, and just how true that is becomes apparent at the end of the movie. For one hour and 58 minutes we hold our breath to see if Eli will accomplish his task, to see if God will protect him, to see if Eli can avoid the obstacles and temptations and overcome the trials along the way. This is a Road movie, and in a sense it is an answer to the nihilism to another recent acclaimed road movie The Road— where the road leads nowhere, and there is nothing accomplished, nothing of purpose to accomplish in the end.
This movie is indeed a post-apocalypse western, produced by the Hughes brother, and it has the feel of the Mad Max survivalist films, especially the first one. Water is precious and hard to find, food is rare and hard to find, and civilization is non-existent. The only town we encounter is more like an armed camp or a wild west town we saw in the Clint Eastwood movies. This movie has plenty of violence, but then so did the old frontier– it was in part how the West was won. There is of course a good deal of irony in the ‘let’s fight over the Bible’ thrust of this film, when the Bible includes the message to put down your weapons and beat them into plowshares. But then this movie is more like the book of Joshua or Judges or Exodus than like the Gospels.
It can be no accident that just as Eli is a man of a book, so also is Carnegie, only his book is the biography of Mussolini– apparently he is learning how to be a petty dictator, but he knows he needs the Book so he can manipulate the people. And the people are illiterate. Only a precious few can read or write after the war made a hole in the sky and life as it once was known disappeared. At one juncture Eli tries to describe what the world was once like to Solara (whose name means sun) before the war. He says that people forgot what really mattered, what was really precious. But in the post-apocalypse world in survival mode there could be little doubt about what was essential, except of course that apparently only two persons know what is most essential of all— that which supplies not merely life but everlasting life— the Word of God.
I highly recommend this parabolic movie. It is entirely an appropriate one for a country at war, as ours is, or a country trying to help a nation like Haiti recover from what must have seemed like a nuclear disaster. This is without question one of Denzel Washington’s finest films, and Gary Oldman is superb as well.
For those hoping to escape the final tribulation on earth, this movie has a simple message— buckle your seat belts, because no one, including Christians, are leaving this world without dying. No one. Eli’s coming, coming first, but Jesus will be a while later.