Expectations can definitely play a role in your reaction to a movie. The greater your excitement and hopes, the easier it is for a film to not meet them. Conversely, if you start off from a position of “This is gonna be crap” or “I’m only watching this because the remote’s out of reach”, there’s every possibility a movie might not only exceed expectations (faint praise, since the bar is set low) but actually end up feeling like it was an entertaining use of your time.
I really don’t remember The Book of Eli making a big noise when it was first released. Even now it’s got some pretty anemic scores both from a critical and commercial sense, and despite its post-apocalyptic Western sensibilities I think it was Dawn who stuck it on our Netflix queue, not me. The disc proclaimed a 118 minute runtime, which meant nearly two hours… already a violation of the unofficial guideline some of my friends and I have adopted where we feel like a movie’s ideal length is around an hour and a half. It’s a guideline, not a rule… after all, I’ve admitted several times here how I enjoy some of the classic movies with a slower sense of pacing… but we’re definitely living in an era where most of the time movies that go two hours (or more) really don’t need to. I don’t want to be checking my watch as my ass goes numb waiting for a film to figure out how to end itself.
Anyhow, I bring this particular bit up because The Book of Eli managed to feel like a 90 minute movie for me, and I say that with my compliments. I can see people being turned off as it tilts thematically between stabs at philosophy and scenes of almost cartoonish ultra-violence (mind you, the kind of cartoon that includes geysering neck blood). I might just be used to that sort of thing after watching so much anime, but the violence remained grounded just enough so as not to be rendered entirely devoid of weight and meaning… even despite the unfortunate decision to use CGI for some of the combat scenes in a setting which cried out for the grit and dust and just sheer physicality of practical effects. Bloodily slaughtering a bunch of bandit mooks is no big thing, but the named characters were still people to care about. I suppose I’m reminded in several ways of the tone in Escape From New York… and again, I say that with my compliments. I’m an unrepentant child of the ’80s.
I don’t think it’ll be any major spoiler to say that Denzel Washington’s lone drifter character is carrying a book, and that book is supposedly the last existing copy of the Bible. That may or may not be true, but America (and presumably the rest of the world) suffered nuclear armageddon, or something close enough to it, and in the wake of that it’s declared people sought out and burned any copies that survived since a lot of blame for the war fell on religious motives. The post-war generation doesn’t even know the concept of saying grace before a meal… which again seems a bit far-fetched, but without it we don’t have the central conflict where the one other guy in the wasteland who remembers the Bible (played by Gary Oldman, and I’m a big sucker for Gary Oldman villains) wants it so he can use its words to control and oppress. “People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ’em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. All we need is that book.”
Yeah, this is… not a subtle movie. But it does have some surprisingly smart moments, especially in the twist at the end (foreshadowed at several points when you start thinking back on them). So despite Book of Eli arguably having nothing really fresh to offer in terms of visuals or plotlines, I didn’t check my watch, my ass didn’t go numb, and I’m actually going to remember this film for awhile. I say that with my compliments.