“Book of Eli” a powerhouse epic from the brothers Hughes

* * * * out of four stars

“The Book of Eli” is another entry in the post-apocalyptic subgenre of science fiction joining “Mad Max,” “The Omega Man,” “I Am Legend,” “Waterworld,” “Escape from New York” and countless others, where humanity has finally rid the earth of itself and must survive on what little remains. The best of these films is, and has been since 1981, the sequel to “Mad Max,” “The Road Warrior.” But “Eli” may very well replace it. It’s that good.

Directed by the Hughes Brothers (“Dead Presidents,” “From Hell”), the film opens with silence and loneliness. We are introduced to our hero, the wandering Eli, when he kills a cat with a bow and arrow. He has wandered for thirty years, ever since a catastrophic nuclear war. He carries a book, the book. And he reads it every night.

Bibles were burned after the nuclear holocaust. Religion was blamed for the war, and thus all religious texts were destroyed… except one. A King James Bible, bruised, but in tact and in Eli’s possession. Eli believes he is on a quest from God to take the book west… to where, he doesn’t know.

He happens upon a town. The town doesn’t really have a name, it’s just “a town.” It seems to be in the middle of nowhere. It’s run by a man named Carnegie, who can read and will do anything to get his hands on Eli’s book. Carnegie wants the book so that he may use it to influence people to do his bidding. His intentions are far from pure. He keeps and sells slaves and uses his intellect to get the better of people. He is pure evil. And when Eli refuses to give him the book, he unleashes a fury that may just end Eli and his quest.

This film is very violent and dark. It is brooding and depressing. There is never a smile. This is not a flaw in the movie. It is a strength. The setting calls for sadness, for despair and hopelessness. There is nothing to smile about in a world where your next breath comes as a surprise. Eli hardly ever sleeps. He’s always on his guard. So is everyone else in the film.

Except Carnegie. Gary Oldman (“Air Force One,” “The Dark Knight”) plays Carnegie with shiver-inducing slithery. Carnegie is not ever happy to be where he is, but he’s at least proud to be the king of the mountain. To him, his town may as well be the world and he may as well be king.

Both stars of the film do an incredible job of reimagining their respective roles. Oldman brings a new kind of greed and vanity to his usual villain role. As Eli, Denzel Washington (“Training Day,” “The Taking of Pelham 123”) also brings a rougher, sadder, and more ruthless aspect to his hero persona. We’ve seen Oldman and Washington play villains and heroes before, but with both actors we get new dimensions here. These are newer, different characters than the ones they’ve played before.

There is so much I am not telling you. What I’m not telling you about is its themes. Themes are so important in a sci-fi piece. There needs to be a lesson, something you take from it. That’s what science fiction does. Without telling you the themes for fear of completely ruining the experience, I will say that they are classic, perfectly created science fiction.

The Hughes brothers’ directing is remarkable. The film is so dark and barren. The scenes are gritty and believable. Going in, we believe the world we’re seeing, and not for a second do we doubt it.

I hate it when critics say, early in the year, “It’s the best film all year!” So I’m not going to say that. But it is definitely worth seeing at least twice.

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