The world has taken some beatings on the big screen, not least at the hands of global bullyboy Roland Emmerich. Every now and then, you get a film that takes place after the fact, and armageddon has been and gone. Of course sometimes, two films come along at once, and a very thematically rigid January at the cinema brings us The Road and The Book of Eli. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.
The Road is set after an unspecified cataclysm that devastated the world, killed most of the population and has every day becoming colder than the last. In the midst of this chaos, a father and his son make their way across America to the coast, a destination that the father believes everything depends on. The Book of Eli looks, to all intents and purposes, like a video game-friendly alternative to this film if you go by the trailers and posters. It follows a Man With No Name type (except he's called Eli), as he carries a precious cargo across, again, the post-apocalyptic waste that used to be America. This cargo is the titular book, and with the promise that it could bring civilisation once again amongst the few surviving humans, it doesn't take a theologian to figure out what book it might be. When Eli chances upon a small Wild West town, he clashes with its ruler, Carnegie, who has long sought to control the book's power.
The Road came first though. These films are so similar in plot that I thought I might as well synopsize them together. They are of course wildly different in tone, and this is a dramatic two-hander between Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as father and son. Yeah, so there are other survivors along the way and flashbacks to the now-absent mother of the family, but it's largely all about those two. Mortensen is really, properly good in this film, understating his role as a devoted father with real sadness and determination. You can believe this is a man who has watched the world go to hell, and that he'll do anything to keep his son from the dangers in the chaotic aftermath. McPhee is less convincing, and director John Hillcoat hardly sold the casting by telling everyone the kid was cast because he looked like his screen mum, Charlize Theron. McPhee is at his best when pondering the moral implications of the lifestyle he and his father lead, but beyond that, he just doesn't come across as a kid born into this world.
I haven't yet read the book that this is based on, but there's one major thing I didn't think was made clear in the film. What's so great about survival when the world is as bad as this? There is at least some purpose to their striving for the coast, but even that falls through once the purpose of the journey is revealed. Maybe it's made clearer in the book, but after they've traversed the country avoiding cannibals and freezing to death, what's the point in suffering. Perhaps I'm a little fatalistic, but that's the key problem with The Road in my estimation. It also covers similar ground to Hillcoat's previous film, The Proposition, as the bonds of family are set against a hostile and unforgiving landscape, and Hillcoat uses the same make-up techniques used on that one to visually put his performers through the wringer. This film still has its own identity despite those similarities, but it's too bleak to be enjoyed and not memorable enough to be really appreciated.
That's really not to say I think The Road is a bad film, and believe it or not, I got a laugh out of it at one point. Obviously not from the film, but from a guy sitting a few rows ahead of me in the cinema, who realised he hadn't picked the right date film about half an hour in when his girlfriend started crying her eyes out, and continued to do so for much of the rest of the film. It's obviously a film you're meant to admire rather than enjoy, and while having read the book might enhance the expereience for most viewers, you may be as ambivalent about the film as I was if you haven't read it. Viggo Mortensen is truly brilliant and Guy Pearce follows The Hurt Locker with another very memorable cameo role, but the crux of the thing is that while I thought the film was good, I don't think anyone will really like it.
I had very low expectations of The Book of Eli, but while the content isn't as thoughtful as in John Hillcoat's film, this one is admittedly a lot more fun. This is somewhat bizarre, as it's certainly bleak enough to stand up to others in the sub-genre, but it's also a well executed action thriller. More than that, it's unpredictable. Dyou know what? I actually really liked it! Beyond what I said about the particulars of the book being fairly obvious, there are some absolutely killer twists throughout the film that kept me engaged for the duration. More than that, it explores the power of ideas rather than force. As many explosions and gunshots as there are in the action sequences, they won't shake Denzel Washington's Eli as long as he has his mission to focus on.
And it is a rather terrific performance from Denzel Washington. You could scarcely call it a career best, but that's because he's a very good actor who's been in some very good films. What you can say is that he's having a whale of a time, even if his co-star Mila Kunis doesn't quite measure up- she's a capable actor, it's just that she doesn't fare well in action films, (see Max Payne... or rather don't see Max Payne) A number of Harry Potter alumni round out the supporting cast, dominated by Gary Oldman as a well rounded villain with actual motivation as opposed to plot necessitated evil-doing. Besides that, there's an utterly bizarre non-sequitur with Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour doing a bit of comic relief in the middle. Tom Waits also shows up, typically making a memorable turn with a limited amount of screen time. It's a high calibre cast, and it's clear that they knew a good script when they saw it. I'm much happier to see these actors in this film rather than in 2012, for instance.
The Book of Eli isn't going to set the world alight. Indeed, the action begins after the world has been set alight by the sun's rays getting through a big old hole in the o-zone layer. The point is, this is a lot more fun than you could really expect a film with this subject matter to be. It has some strong central ideas and great performances, and aside from one admittedly minor quibble that took me out of the film momentarily (I thought he locked that door?!), I enjoyed it a lot. Although its release date means it'll be upstaged by its colleague in the genre, it actually works well as counter-programming. If, like the unfortunate young man and his girlfriend, you find The Road to be too bleak, you can give The Book of Eli a look and find a decent action thriller that isn't too emotionally taxing and doesn't treat you like an idiot either. Amen!
One film for cinematic connoisseurs, and another for the crowd who just fancy a night out at the multiplex. I need more days like this. If you've taken in a double dose of doomsday recently, why not share your comments below?
I'm currently intrigued by a film called All About Steve, because it seems to be a romcom that actually plumbs the depths of how bad it is possible to be in a film. I'm actually drawn to it by its terribleness- probably penance for wimping out of Shit Chipmunk Film 2. Or It's Complicated. Or Did You Hear About The Morgans? Eesh, I'm letting you all down lately. On the positive side of things, I've also seen Up In The Air, so a review of that shall be coming shortly.
I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.