A fatally flawed Western set in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Denzel Washington is Eli, the avenging angel/Christian pilgrim, pulled into a battle of faith versus greed when he crosses paths with small town despot "Carnegie" (Gary Oldman).
The premise, sadly similar to The Road Warrior, holds a sliver of promise: it's been 30 years since "the war" destroyed civilization. The survivors blamed The Bible for the war, and sought to destroy every copy on Earth. As a result, the populace born since the war is mostly illiterate, and the knowledge of Christianity has been forgotten. Eli carries a leather-bound King James Bible in his rucksack, reads it every night, and has faith in it. Carnegie, on the other hand, sees its power to control the desperate hearts and minds of the godless survivors across the desert wasteland of America.
The idea of a society where God has been forgotten, a hardscrabble subsistence culture where survival comes before humanity, could have been exploited to make a dramatic, powerful film. Instead, the Hughes Brothers (From Hell, Menace II Society) miss those opportunities, thanks to poor style choices and cliche'd plot elements.
One of the main thematic elements is the burning power of the sun. The war, 30 years earlier, "punched a hole in the sky", blinding many survivors with "the flash", and forcing the rest to wear sunglasses at all times to avoid being blinded. This ties in nicely with the idea that the godless survivors are "blind" to the knowledge of The Lord, but it creates a crippling dramatic challenge. The entire cast wears sunglasses all the time, forcing Academy Award winner Denzel Washington, wearing oversized opaque lenses, to do all his acting without his most emotive organs? Mila Kunis (Solara), whose talent surprised and impressed me in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, only gets two scenes without her Top Gun aviator shades. At least most of Gary Oldman's scenes take place indoors, but he dons ridiculous Truman Capote Wayfarers for the gun battles on Main Street.
Denzel's Eli is a man of few words. Even once he is forced to allow Solara to tag along on his journey, he speaks hardly at all about the world before the war, about the word of the Lord, or about his faith. What's the point in having a Christian alone in the wilderness if he refuses to spread The Word?
The most tedious element has to be Carnegie's henchmen. Once again, Oldman is playing the clever villain who is forced to order around his moronic henchmen. I love Gary Oldman, but he's played this exact part much better in The Professional and The Fifth Element.
The ending includes a clever plot twist, several geographic impossibilities, a physiologically unlikely scenario, and Malcolm McDowell with long white hair and a stringy mustache. I am not going to bother to explain how this movie goes downhill sideways in the last 10 minutes, because I beg you to avoid this movie anyway.
My favorite part of the movie was the score. The original music is credited to newcomers Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Claudia Sarne. The score was a mix of droning atonal doom, reminiscent of The Shining, and quasi-Nine Inch Nails instrumentals, but on the whole they offered a evocative counterpoint to the barren landscapes of deserts, craters, and sepia-toned hopelessness.
I saw this with Marc, Jack, Jeff, and José- Jack talked me down from a C+ grade ("that's just below average!") to a D+ grade. Someone suggested that I was grading on a curve, but if that were true, it would have flunked completely as the worst movie I saw in a theater in the last year. (Regal Fenway 13, screen 2)