"We threw away things people kill each other for now." That's how Eli (recent Tony winner Denzel Washington) describes the world before it was flattened by "the flash" in the Christian fable The Book of Eli, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week. Since the world ended, or very nearly did, everything is at a premium. The thirsty must barter for a full canteen; even an iPod charge costs a pocketful of trinkets.
The film, with its scorched-earth privations and cannibal crust punks, earned a lot of negative comparisons to the big-screen adaptation of The Road when it was released in January (Ty Burr's math: "The Book of Eli is The Road with twice the plot, four times the ammunition, and half the brains; it'll probably make 10 times the money"). But here's betting the considerably less dismal Eli, directed by the Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society, From Hell), will have a longer shelf life than the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel.
Though the Hughes brothers borrow liberally from the Western genre in imagining the frontier-town main drag where the action gets under way, their film's devastated landscape is the usual end-of-world vision of blasted-out infrastructure, its palate a familiar shade of ash. And like many recent post-apocalyptic films, The Book of Eli gingerly deploys corporate logos (Eli cleans himself with KFC wet naps; a corroded Puma store provides shelter) to underscore humanity's desperate ingenuity in the face of cataclysm.
Books are especially valuable in Eli's economy, the crux of the movie being the Good Book in the protagonist's possession, which a local despot, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), is desperate to get his hands on. Carnegie, whom we first see reading an oversize biography of Mussolini, loves to read—he sends his minions out to collect whatever books they can find—but he is primarily preoccupied with using the Bible's teachings to extend his own influence. He just needs to get his hands on one.
And there does appear to be only one—the leather-bound volume in Eli's knapsack. His flight from Carnegie is a long one, so the seemingly invincible wanderer—who dispatches entire goon squads during this otherwise hushed movie's controlled bursts of comic-book violence—eventually gets a pert sidekick, Solara (Mila Kunis). This odd couple treks on to a New Agey conclusion that recalls a certain Ray Bradbury book (one that François Truffaut adapted for the screen).
Some might find The Book of Eli's mixture of Christian creed and ultra-violence more than a little dubious. But especially with all the recent talk about how the Internet is reshaping our neural pathways one hyperlink at a time, Eli's earnest argument for the value of the good old-fashioned codex proves substantially appealing.
Of course, much of Eli, which launches every so often into spectacularly choreographed fight sequences, has nothing to do with book learning. And we've seen this whole badass-Chosen One-with-sunglasses routine before. But I think it's wrongheaded to dismiss this film as a blockheaded Road. Eli might have a less controlled tone, but it bats around more provocative ideas.
A more terrifyingly plausible endtimes scenario plays out in Chris Smith's Collapse, a riveting documentary also new to home video. Smith's subject is Michael Ruppert, a former LAPD officer and editor of the newsletter From the Wilderness. In a wide-ranging interview with Smith (American Movie), conducted in a dark basement, Ruppert lays out his elaborate doomsday forecast, in which the depletion of energy resources leads to the collapse of governments and civilization as we know it (invest in gold!). He also lets drop a few details about the personal relationships that have been destroyed as he's pursued his inconvenient lines of thinking.
Ruppert essentially claims to possess critical reading skills that allow him to map out a constellation of facts from reams of mainstream-media BS. Collapse has a soapboxy setup, but by including snatches of his own questions Smith invites viewers to be skeptical of Ruppert's alarming declarations. In other words, it's nearly impossible to watch this and remain unmoved. The film blew threw theaters right after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2009, but here I sit almost a year later wondering precisely how Ruppert would fit the Deepwater Horizon debacle into his peak-oil prophecy.