Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Gospel according to Eli

I couldn't sleep last night for two reasons: 1) my cat was making up for the fact that I haven't seen her much this week by demanding non-stop attention for most of the overnight hours, and 2) I can't stop thinking about "Book of Eli," which I saw last night, and scenes from which will be running through my head for weeks to come. As much as I have loved and been transported by science fiction films from the past couple years ("Avatar," "Iron Man," "District Nine"), this film stirred me to my soul like nothing has since "The Fountain."

Science fiction schmience fiction. This is just the best damn movie I have seen in years. Like all great sci-fi, and unlike science-looking fantasy of the "Star Wars" family, the futuristic setting for "Eli" is just a vehicle to tell a story that couldn't be told in an era that has actually existed. Great science fiction requires a Ringworld, a killer robot from the future, or a ritual of hasta'akala to make its point. "Eli" requires a post-apocalyptic setting so Denzel Washington can carry the last Bible on Earth, and so his eponymous character can paraphrase and simplify Scripture in such an elegant way that one wonders why one never thought of it before. And so he can kill lots of bad guys with a kick-ass machete.

It's hard to talk in detail about the film without giving away plot points; not only do I not want to give away plot points, but I don't even want people to know what kind of plot points there are to give away. The film is unpredictable and strange in its script, its pacing, and its every conflict resolution, and it's best experienced if you don't know what's coming. And it can be viewed from a number of perspectives. To some, it's a post-apocalyptic action movie. To some, it's a survival drama. To me, it's the explicit, agonizing statement of faith and sacrifice that "The Passion of the Christ" should have been but wasn't. It's the simple statement that without faith, the world will fall apart. Without hope, the world will fall apart. Without love, the world will fall apart. With Denzel killing bad guys with a kick-ass machete.

I love Denzel Washington. I think he's the best American screen actor of his generation and each generation since. I love how he embodies suppression of the extremes of emotion, always about to burst, so that when he explodes with a catharsis we feel terrible for him because he can't ever go back to the man he was before. He is always a real, honest man thrust into unbelievable circumstances and forced to believe them. Never have I seen him like this, so calm yet tense, sure yet doubtful. He is the living embodiment of mission and of his character's definition of faith: "Faith is knowing something even if you don't know something." Gary Oldman's performance is one of the best of his storied career as well; in fact, not knowing the cast ahead of time I had to keep watching him for 10 minutes before I was settled it was him. (He has a wonderful "Fifth Element" moment near the end that I found priceless.) And, of all people, Mila Kunis keeps up with the both of them. Mila Kunis. Who knew.

Don't read reviews. Don't talk to friends who have seen it and have a history of blurting out spoilers. Just go see this remarkable movie. Then get back in line and buy another ticket to see it again. Because you're going to want to.

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