cinema review: The Book of Eli (2010)

My brother and I both have January birthdays. In the past few years it has been our tradition to get together to see a guy movie. In the past we've enjoyed shows like Cloverfield, but this time we both regretted seeing The Book of Eli. I didn't want to spoil the movie for myself, so I didn't research it too thoroughly. I watched a preview and thought the action would be good. I like Denzel Washington. I knew the movie was about the Bible. I knew there was an interview with Denzel about his faith in Christianity Today. I thought that this might be one of those movies

GOOD MORNING AMERICA -  6/12/09 - Academy Awar...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

that tries to do some pre-evangelism by speaking the cinematic language of our culture. I kept hoping this despite the growing evidence over the first hour. Eventually I gave up. The theater was full, but I'm not sure what message they heard. I will be spoiling the movie because I don't think it's worth saving or watching.

I have the same problem with this movie that I had with Avatar. The medium contradicts the message. In Avatar, the message of "exploitation of others is bad" was contradicted by the exploitation of topless women actors. In Eli, the message of "the world needs the Bible to save us from ourselves" was contradicted by at least three gratuitous rape scenes. There are ways to convey evil artistically, without doing it explicitly. If the directors, sons of John Hughes, really believe that our worst instincts need to be resisted by the message of the Bible, why do they fill the minds of their audiences with men fulfilling their worst instincts? As I've said elsewhere, violence is bad, sexual violence is worse. At the end of the movie when the bad guy realizes his little kingdom is collapsing, and the camera zooms in on him, the only thing left to see in the background for 30 seconds, past his head, is a man attempting to rape a woman. I hated that.

I think part of my sensitivity to these things is due to the lack of television in our household. We have a TV, but we don't get any channels. Everything we watch, we choose, usually by DVD or online. Maybe, rape scenes are common on television these days, but I haven't been de-sensitized and I was violated each time I saw those scenes in the movie. I have two daughters. Those scenes are nightmares to me.

The big spoiler is that Eli, who, like the Blues Brothers, is on a mission from God to deliver the last Bible in the post-apocalyptic America somewhere west, is blind. But because he is on a mission from God, he can fight like a ninja and act just like a person with sight. That makes this movie a mash-up of Daredevil and Mad Max. The joke is he's been walking west for 20 years, eating stray cats and fighting off the cannibals. Since he "walks by faith and not by sight," as he quotes the Bible to his follower, he takes 20 times longer than most people to walk across the country.

His Bible quoting is deficient. He quotes to her again a mash-up of Psalm 23. It had many of the parts, but out of order. I've memorized Psalm 23 myself, and if Eli were in my AWANA club, I would have told him to go work on it for a few more weeks. He also made his own version of the Golden Rule. "Do more for others than you would do for yourself." In Matthew 7:12, Jesus says in his Sermon on the Mount, "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets." As I tell my kids when they fight, "if you don't like it when they do it to you, don't do it to them, but treat them the way you want to be treated." Eli doesn't practice Jesus' standard, much less his own, an addition to the words of Jesus.

It turns our, Eli's Bible is in braille. That's fine, but I have a blind friend at church. She can only carry one book of the Bible at a time to church, because, the entire book fills up a bookshelf. Braille pages are necessarily thicker than print pages. Even though the bad guy takes his Bible, Eli is able to arrive at Alcatraz to deliver his King James Bible. Alcatraz is held by good guys trying to preserve human books and art and culture. They even have a printing press. Eli, starting from Genesis 1, begins reciting from memory the entire Bible to a scribe. Then he dies. His protege, who escaped with him from the bad guy's town, after hearing the entire Bible, heads out with his weapons to go back home. She was not transformed by the message of the Bible. She is not heading out as a messenger of peace, as we remember a great one today, Martin Luther King, Jr., but as another violent cowboy ninja. Finally, the movie closes with the newly printed Bible being placed on a bookshelf between the Koran and the Torah. It's merely another religious book, kept safely on a shelf. I'm also wondering, if they had a Torah, why didn't they ask Eli to start with the New Testament, Matthew 1 or something? I couldn't tell if there was another book labeled the Tanakh or not. But maybe, the movie only appreciated the literature of the King James Version, as literature, but not as the soul-transforming words of God.

Martin Luther King, Jr.Martin Luther King, Jr. via

As a Christian viewer of this movie, I feel used. The Bible is a powerless book in the alternate world of Eli. The evil nature of men is presented as entertainment. There is no repentance. There is no redemption. There is no good news. The makers of this movie, don't know that it's the good news of the Bible that sends most of the charities to Haiti right now. It's the good news of Jesus that gives Haitians hope, so that they sing in the night to Him, awaiting his miraculous interventions through their fellow believers from other countries. It was the Bible that empowered MLK, Jr. It was the Bible that transformed the racist laws of the southern U.S. It is not because the Bible is great literature, but because it is the Word of God himself. It's not Eli's book, it's the book of Jesus Christ.

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Anonymous said…
Hi John:

Thanks for this sensitive review. I understand your concerns, but you seem to have missed the point of the movie. Of course bad guys act badly. That includes rape. And frankly I didn't see any explicit images of rape with nudity in this movie. It was really a more veiled presentation. I would have liked a more revealing portrait of Eli in the end with his more clearly admitting his own sins, but like MLK who was not without sexual sin in his own life, Eli is a flawed hero, but he had some redeeming features. The difference between him and Carnegie was clear.

Blessings on your ministry,

Ben W.
Ben Witherington said…
Hi John:

Thanks for your sensitive review. I would beg to differ with you about several points. First of all, rape is not explicitly depicted in this movie. It got an R rating for violence, which it deserved. Secondly, there is a clear depiction of the difference in character between Eli and Carnegie, including in the way they use the Bible. Thirdly, all hero figures are flawed, including MLK for that matter who was not without serious sexual sin in his life, so I think, especially in light of the end of the movie, we ought to cut Eli some slack.


Ben W.
John Umland said…
Hi Ben
thanks for coming by so quickly after I commented at your post.
I don't like rape scenes. With or without nudity, seeing women thrown around and attacked and held down and their legs pulled apart is entirely too graphic for me.
My problems with the movie are that the medium is the message. I think the story is redeemable, but not the presentation.
I'm not sure how MLK's affairs have anything to do with the discussion, because they were all "off camera." Also, affairs are bad, rapes are atrocities.

What is redemptive about Eli? That he let's Solara tag along? That he let's her drive him to San Francisco? What did the good news do to him?

God is good
John Umland said…
I also cannot fathom the depravity of our culture that asks women to pretend to be raped for entertainment. I cannot fathom the sick irony of asking those actresses to do this for a movie about the value of the Bible.
God is good
Anonymous said…
>>God is good
I've read your blog for awhile now, and I finally decided to speak out. Not because of what you found abherrent - I have a daughter and it freaks me out to think that some people find this exciting - but because you seem to have a flawed concept of a being you barely understand.

Further, although I appreciate your religious views John, I seriously doubt you've read your bible much.

Consider the Passover incident described in Exodus chapters 11 and 12, in which all of the firstborn of all Egypt were slaughtered. This included newborns, children, youths, adults, the elderly -- both human and animal.

I'm going to quote a few things from King James (a questionable translation to be sure, but the passages quoted are verified by cross-comparing various versions of the bible with Hebrew text)

Deuteronomy 20:17
But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee

Joshua 6:21
"And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and donkey, with the edge of the sword"

God is amoral - morality does not apply to an omnipotent being. Back in the Old testament, during those massacres in his name, it was probably the equivalent of dropping a nuke in China and destroying all one billion citizens - because their religion was wrong.
John Umland said…
Hi Anonymous the 2nd.
I've written extensively on the Canaanite wars here on this blog. Look under the atrocity category. The person who writes much more on this topic is Paul Copan. This article here, , would be worth your time. He has a new book that also addresses your assertion that God is amoral titled "Is God a Moral Monster?" but it won't be out till the fall or winter. However, in the meantime I suggest this short article by Copan here,

Let me know what you think.
God is good

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