Bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes continue to crop up on screen. With a lone wanderer in tattered rags and ill-fitting boots, scavenging for goods and precious resources among cutthroat marauders, the first feature from Albert and Allen Hughes ("From Hell") in nine years looks like a knockoff of "Mad Max" or "The Road." But this hell-on-earth movie stars Denzel Washington as a man with a mission beyond mere survival. His sense of purpose gives the film gravitas and a unique twist.
Gary Whitta's first screenplay unfolds like a parable. The uncomplicated plot -- verging on threadbare -- sustains interest by virtue of Washington's performance and a crumb-trail of details. Thirty winters have passed since the flash, a vaguely described cataclysmic event of global proportion. Either the sun or the war blinded many survivors. Considered an old man and one of the few who remembers the world as we know it, Eli (Washington) says that people had more than they needed and no idea of what was precious. They would discard items that survivors would kill for now. He's heading west with precious cargo: a leather-bound tome, coveted by a power-hungry book lover (Gary Oldman). The simple narrative expresses a spiritual concept that will speak specifically to Christian audiences.
To borrow from the 23rd Psalm, as Eli walks and walks and walks through the valley of the shadow of death, he fears no evil. His arrows fly straight. His bullets always hit the target. His blade work could put samurai warriors and superheroes to shame. If Washington or the filmmakers had hit a single false note, the action scenes might have been laughable. Instead they offer riveting reprieves from Eli's achingly slow road trip, turned up a notch when joined by a runaway (Mila Kunis).
Scant attempts at humor do little to lighten the unremittingly somber tone. The blighted, big-sky terrain captured by cinematographer Don Burgess visually reinforces the doomsday scenario, although shots of the cloud-strewn heavens suggest glimmers of hope.
Ultimately, "The Book of Eli" is a one-note film. The theme and dramatic conflict -- with the kind of surprise ending that gives the original versions of "Planet of the Apes" and "Soylent Green" their final punch -- could play out in half the running time. But Washington's ability to play his cryptic character as both reflective and active, weary yet committed to his calling, sustains the movie.
Many viewers will embrace the straightforward tale as an affirmation of their religious beliefs, whereas many others will have to seek elsewhere. One of the most interesting things about this film is that you can't dispute the content as given. Within the world of the movie, "The Book of Eli" is a closed book -- and an unusual one for mainstream cinema.