There was a time between 2005-2010 where the previously unpopular genre of dystopian sci fi suddenly exploded. From videogames like Bioshock (2007) and Fallout 3 (2008) to books like The Road (2006) and The Hunger Games (2008), it felt like that a drought had truly become a flood. Films were no different, with The Island (2005), Æon Flux (2005), Children of Men (2006), Idiocracy (2006), I am Legend (2007), Cargo (2007), Blindness (2008), District 9 (2009), The Road (2009), Never Let Me Go (2010) and Repo Men (2010) all releasing in quick succession. Just before The Hunger Games dragged the genre squarely into the mainstream and out the other end, The Book of Eli hit cinemas at the height of the dystopian love-in – and you can feel it from the very first moment.
The first thirty minutes of The Book of Eli are almost a homage to the titles that came before. Every trope is carefully and excellently delivered, from the dust bowls of post-apocalyptic America to the scavengers living on the cusp of survival. Society has crumbled under the pressure of resource scarcity and Denzel Washington’s Eli is an archetypal lone hero of few words scraping a living at the edges. The early portion of the film is a delightful window into the living environment in which it is set, and stands among the best in the genre in terms of world building. Things take a sour turn when Eli is first introduced to Carnegie, a comically one-dimensional small town villain that even the world class Gary Oldman cannot act past. Eli is soon occupying the role of a kind of Wild West gunslinger, nobly opposing Carnegie’s power-hungry ambitions.
Things get even worse when Eli reveals he is a deeply pious man, prompting Carnegie to do anything he can to get hold of the bible Eli is seemingly carrying with him. That’s because, according to Carnegie, the bible is an easy way to control the idiots, which I suppose has some truth to it. Thus ensues an hour of righteous religious nonsense and a ridiculous twist that ultimately doesn’t really change anything. The film’s finale is not only bad; it’s genuinely infuriating. If I could score the three acts of The Book of Eli independently, it would get a 9, a 3 and a 1. It’s sad that such a compelling aesthetic and convincing nuclear wasteland is wasted on such a steaming pile of cod shit.