The “book of Eli,” the thick, leather-bound volume making all the trouble in our burnt-out husk of a future, is the Bible. That’s not a spoiler, fortunately — Eli has a much bigger, stupider mindfuck in store, and I promise not to cockblock (though a fully functioning brain will have the same effect as a table of drunken, jealous friends) — just a warning. Fundamentalist Christians want itemized F-bomb lists and alerts for smoking and “disrespectful humor,” so everyone else deserves a heads up for what in a lot of ways amounts to a sermon disguised as a mindless action film.
Eli joins the slim ranks of the sci-fi subgenre (mostly populated by the sometimes-brilliant works of Mormon author Orson Scott Card) that postulates a future in which old-time religion has lost none of its relevance, but the film’s not exactly suitable for a Sunday-school field trip. Eli’s post-apocalyptic world is a rough one — probably, the movie strongly suggests, because the Bible, blamed as the cause of the last great war, has been burned to near extinction. Mad Max motorcycle gangs roam the ruins, raping, murdering, and, most offensively to many present-day cross-clutchers, spewing all sorts of ugly talk. Good men, too, are reduced to acts of cruelty and cowardice as they fight to live: Nearly infallible protagonist Eli (Washington) is introduced hunting a house cat with a bow and arrow, and shortly thereafter hides while a man and woman are brutally killed nearby, fearing that interfering might jeopardize his “mission.”
As caretaker of what might be the last Bible in existence, Eli’s sworn to find it a safe home, from whence the good book might be redistributed for the healing of the masses. (The Quran,the Bhagavad Gita, the Illuminatus! Trilogy, and other holy texts were presumably destroyed as well, but no one seems to miss them, oddly enough.) Opposing Eli in his quest is Carnegie (Oldman), dystopia’s answer to Deadwood’s Al Swearengen — a pimp and warlord with the crazy idea that he might be able to use the Bible’s words to manipulate the weak and stupid. What results is a mash-up of Fahrenheit 451, The Road, and freaking Zardoz with fairly innocuous but none-too-subtle religious overtones and joyless gratuitous violence. The action scenes are plentiful but not compelling enough to justify the film’s existence, and I imagine many of the people who take the Bible as seriously the film does will be appalled by the movie’s grittier aspects. But if you’re desperate to find out what the Left Behind series would look like with a bunch of Road Warrior shit thrown in, I can’t really think of a better film to recommend.