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Monday, August 16, 2010

Movie Review: The Road and Book of Eli

Warning: This post contains plot spoilers for these movies

These two movies depict a future America a state phrased by survivalblog.com as TETWAWKI, The End of the World as We Know it.

I was struck by the dreary, stunning yet foreboding imagery of The Road. The Road stars Viggo Mortensen, who reduces his weight precipitously to play the role. He escorts his son along a road to some hopefully better place.

In one scene, Mortensen's character swims out into the sea to scavenge a cracked up old rusty freighter. The blue-gray (always gray) waters are rough, surprisingly so for a completely naked Mortensen to swim to in a real world way. His low body weight must've made the scene hard to shoot, and dangerous.

We're not exactly sure what's caused the apocalyptic North America in The Road. Earthquakes and forest fires create a scorched out landscape, which is caught in Director John Hillcoat's cameras as a gray, soggy existence. Food isn't found; nothing is growing, nothing alive at least. (A beetle emerges in a later scene, an indicator that perhaps the Earth is recovering.) The only breathing things appear to be the humans themselves, who are scurrying around the wasteland looking to feed on anything whose path they cross.

As the pair go down the road to some undefined location, they encounter all sorts of unpleasantries--foremost among them, cannibalism. Starvation on an epic scale justifies the smorgasbord of human flesh.

In The Road, a heavily disguised Robers Duvall plays a small role as an almost Kurosawa-type/Taoist old-man-walking-alone role. Blind, of course, Duvall's character can see into the past and future like some itinerant sage. He represents both what the world was, and what it will be. I guess Mortensen and his son are striving to escape Duvall's fate but need to embrace the old man, to learn from the past mistakes of humankind, to not go back, or along The road. They leave it and its many dangers soon after.

In Denzel Washington's Book of Eli, America is a far different kind of place, though in both movies, cannibalism and lawlessness rule, although Gary Oldman, playing the evil Carnegie, does organize a town providing water, security, and barter.

Barter becomes the chief means of trading, just like we saw in Mel Gibson's Mad Max series, which has become the granddaddy of this expanding genre. The first stage in all these dystopia/post-apocalyptic movies is a breakdown of order--what I call Mad Max Level One--then the rise of gangs, graduating through to reestablishment of order, the rebirth of small towns like the aptly named Bartertown. In Eli, Carnegie takes the place of Tina Turner's Aunty Entity ruling over his private domain.

Eli's style contrasts with Mortensen's. Eli is a hardy adventurer-turned-crusader/guardian of The Book. At some previous point, Eli had received a message from the Holy Spirit that he was to take the Holy Book to the west, and his enemies would part before him, or something like that, clearing the route for Eli down the road to salvation and rebirth.

An atmosphere of fear plagues The Road, while Denzel rises above it like some superhero invulnerable to the many evildoers plaguing the post-apocalyptic world. Mortensen is anything but the hero, hiding and scampering and only reluctantly killing. He retains his humanity--perhaps because of his son--even as he slowly dies from injury and starvation. Eli never dips below his moral principles, which have come to him in a supernatural (believers would call it "divinely inspired") way.

Mortensen's character seems more possessed with simple survival, scampering away even from a stocked shelter out of fear when he hears scampering above. Which survival methodology is more probable? Well, Mortensen's is realistic, while Denzel's is pure Hollywood.

I was struck by similarities in The Book of Eli's world and the popular computer game series Fallout. Both have nuclear war as the force majeure causing TETWAWKI. In scorched out flatlands we see craters caused by nuclear warheads pockmarking the ground.

Radiation doesn't seem to plague the survivors much in Denzel's world, which is one where the Holy Bible has becomes a much-treasured item sought by Oldman's dark hero Carnegie to control minds and exert power. The Bible, you see, is blamed for much of the destruction, and every last copy burned by survivors of the Holocaust. Implausible though it might seem, the Bible that Eli (Denzel) carries is the last in the world. {Personally I found this premise unlikely considering 1), the number of Bibles in use today, and 2) the value of the Bible as a source of spiritual strength, which would be more in demand after than before the apocalypse.}

The Road is scary because we don't know how much time passes between the beginning of the crisis, which begins softly, as Mortensen draws the blinds against a nighttime sky lit red with fire, and the time he and his son leave on the road. In The Book of Eli, a whole new generation comes of age, referring to Eli and Carnegie as "old timers," who are a shrinking group.

The Road makes the impending trip a scary but unavoidable tragedy-simply for lack of food they must travel the dangerous road. Some time into the calamity, the wife of the man--we don't learn the name of Mortensen's character, nor hers--played by the beautiful Charlize Theron can't handle the gloom and wanders off into it.

The Road is the darker of the two. You leave the film in a bit of a downer. I guess it's the cannibalism, or to be more accurate, the dark symbolic imagery of cannibalism, the skulls on stakes here, the human captives locked in the basement, the cold callousness of tortured calls felt as much as heard when Mortensen and his son wait out in the dark, nearly becoming captives themselves.

It hit me after the film that it's cannibalism rising in such a world that bothers you. In Book of Eli, cannibalism is brought up slyly, with dark humor: a couple invites Eli and Solara into their house, serving them tea in a shaking-like-a-leaf-if-there-were-any- left way, which is apparently a symptom of some disease I'd never heard of before where you eat too much lean, red meat. I guess if the cannibals could only devour hungry humans, their meal items would likely be starving as well as provide a food source lacking much fat.

In the Book of Eli, Eli is checked for shaking hands by a guard at the entrance to Carnegie's town, demonstrating that cannibalism was reviled even by the robbers and rapists who frequented the town. In this regard, Hughes' world reconciles itself to ours a little more; the instincts of the townspeople are still humanist at their core, despite all the inherent post-apocalyspe divisiveness and individualist nature of survivalism.

Hope, the greatest treasure

If the sole purpose of these movies were to warn, they'd have done that excellently, at perhaps the price of a depressive experience for the reader/viewer. Instead Hillcoat and Eli's Hughes push a ray of optimism into the inherently dark backdrop--if not for the characters trudging through the wasteland, then their offspring and followers (in the case of Book of Eli, it's the pretty yet overly-self-confident-for-such-a-time-and-place Solara, played by Mila Kunis.)

Both movies do cradle hope at their core.Like any dystopia movies, expressed vividly are the uglinesses of the post-apocalyptic world. More subtle, yet beckoning, are the little glimpses into a future less stained by violence and destruction, a world where reconciliation is possible.

In The Book of Eli, the Bible ends up getting delivered to Alcatraz Island, where a small but committed team of re-constructionists attempt to assemble the knowledge lost from the pre-apocalyptic world. It's an effort at re-humanization we can all appreciate.

I saw on a Discovery special not too long ago about what would happen during times of starvation. Apparently people have been documented traveling vast distances as they starve. Often spiritual leaders arise who promise to lead "their people" to a "promised land." We know also that extreme hunger can cause delirium, hallucinations, and the like. So the notion of a long-distance march may be quite plausible in a dystopic environment, especially one driven by mystical or religious experience.

Some inner motor must lead us on, blindly during these times of starvation. In that sense the Exodus-like wanderings are a demonstration of faith, the inner experience of belief in hope. Instead of confined to the spiritual world, our physical longings are brought to reality through the unifying event, the Apocalypse, and all the woes it spawns--including of course hope in the infallibility of Nature and faith in our fellow man.

Dark future fantasies

I've always been a fan of movies like The Omega Man with Charlton Heston. In that movie, Heston is the sole surviving human immune from a virus, at least he thinks so until discovering others like him. One aspect of these kinds of movies are the circumstances under which these scenarios which could occur, and how the concordant dystopia would unfold, or society unravel: "how did we get there." We think of these thinks mostly to prevent them, I guess, or perhaps better cope with them should they happen, though how someone will react is anyone's guess.

Trying to determine a time that TETWAWKI occurs has become can be a bit of a challenge. I guess when law and order break down, and laws can no longer be enforced, we've entered Mad Max Level One. Gangs will rise in such an environment. Interestingly, we don't need an apocalypse to cause TETWAWKI; nor do we need a nuclear winter nor zombie/vampire takeover to start the dystopia ball rolling. TETWAWKI is a subjective experience: a child leaving their home could mean and an end to all their expectation of the world outside--if it's limited to that. We've had plenty hells on earth; they need not require much space at all--heck a serial killer's basement could provide the setting.

Once started, the dystopia ball gets rolling, and further acts of depravity increase as civilization breaks down. This is the lesson of both movies, the dark specter of fear that colors the stories in each. We cringe at the the thought of losing what we hold dear: it's a threatening notion that strikes us on a personal level. It's not so much the actual apocalypse that gets us, and provides a compelling story line, but the shocking realities that ensue. We enter these movies not as voluntary Mary Poppins-style wanderers down the Yellow Brick Road of endless smiles but instead are pulled, dragged...unwilling prisoners to the dark side of our nature.

The idea of dystopia makes for good entertainment precisely because we want to see--deep down inside of some repressed part of ourselves--Nature exact some vengeance. George Carlin sums it upped magnificently in his video clip (from 3m15sec on), Saving the Planet as well as in his HBO special, Life Worth Losing, unavailable on youtube at the moment. People are drawn to natural disasters because they want to experience their mortality, or to contradict the arrogant notion that people are masters of their universe. Floods and calamities are Nature's way of getting back, or so Carlin iterated.

Deep down inside, we may all dread yet almost expect calamity to strike. Disaster films have grown more popular with scenarios of global warming, asteroid collisions, and similar issues, some of which humanity can endure. It's the purpose of a movie to entertain, so rare it is to see a movie where all the humans die off...I can't think of any titles. The Road comes close to killing all hope as you develop a personal attachment to the survivors. It's hard to wish anyone dead, but dying is a typical condition in a post-apocalyptic world. The movie 2012, which I saw recently as well, echoes the theme of worldwide calamity, yet even there Africa survives even if America doesn't.

The 70s saw a jolt of these movies: Airport7_, The Poseidon Adventure, etc. (see a list of here, about halfway down.) The idea of getting wiped out en masse has been central to entertainment for some time.

Perhaps there's some auto-response in our brains that let's us accept death, should it come through some wild event affecting us all simultaneously. Maybe the shock of the attack releases a surge of serotinin or some naturally biological response takes over, kind of like what's thought to happen to animals killed and eaten alive on the African savannah. Observing these victims in their death throes, the animals often seem quite docile despite what must be an immense desire to flail and kick.

Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) References:

The Book of Eli

The Road

The Omega Man

Complete synopses for the movies are available at all links.


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  • At 12:49 PM, Blogger The Arthurian said…

    Hi JB.
    I finally saw The Book of Eli, so I came back to get your take on it.

    Good movie. Good review. Good plot twists.



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