The Book of Eli: ** 3/4 (out of 4)
January is the supposed to be the Time Of Bad Movies, when the studios release the movies that, for whatever reasons, they didn't want to release during "real" movie seasons. I look forward to this; it's nice to go into movies with low expectations, especially after a season of "good" movies (and more especially after an unusually long run of movies that I actually liked; how can I have not hated any movies since Capitalism: A Love Story? Even Ninja Assassin wasn't that bad!). And so I have to admit that I was disappointed. The Book of Eli was well north of watch-able, and my gripes were primarily meta-contextual.
(One prominent exception: within the first few minutes a cat had been killed. Yes, this was done in order to provide context into the state of the world and show a general moral murkiness, and it was in no way glorified; but still, this is one of those lines that I don't like to see crossed, and I've stayed away from movies and stopped watching television shows for this offense in the past. So, if you're like me, you may want to skip this movie on general principle.)
The Book of Eli shows an especially bleak post-apocalyptic world. Civilization has collapsed, and humanity has been reduced to squabbling over the few remaining resources; water, especially, is somewhere between rare and non-existent. There are virtually no population centers left, and those that do remain are both ruled by warlords and supplied by incredibly scarce and remote water supplies. Even the ammunition has been used up, for the most part. And in this world there is a lone traveller, journeying west with a pack full of scavenged gear and trading supplies.
(Mind, most of this is told to us rather than shown. In fact, most of that which is shown doesn't match up very well with those spoken descriptions; but this is a standard problem with post-apocalyptic worlds. Still, those details that are shown to us tend to be nicely under-stated and meaningful: the interesting scavenged modern technologies, the concern over cannibalism, the different attitudes towards the apocalypse between the young and old. I didn't sweat it too much during the movie.)
Visually, the movie resembles Fallout 3. (This is a compliment; I've been a huge fan of the game series, and the visuals from the last game really were spectacular). As the lone traveller follows the ancient interstates, he comes across ruined bridges and spies on scavengers below. When he looks over the top of a hill, he comes across homes standing alone in a desolate valley. The ruined city looks to be about the same size as any Fallout 3 establishment, with the main interior building looking amazingly like the converted brothel that was the seat of slaver "government" in Paradise Falls. And so forth. It was striking, and it was appropriate.
The acting was probably better than it had to be, if perhaps a bit stereotype-heavy. Denzel Washington was The Good Guy, Gary Oldman was The Ambitious Bad Guy, and Mila Kunis was The Naive Girl; but they all offered fairly nuanced performances, to the best of their abilities. The characters themselves were slightly less interesting, but really, that's to be expected in this kind of movie.
And the script... well, it was really pretty good, at least until the very ending (which is probably best not over-contemplated). Things flowed in a very character-driven way, with plot points not often coming out of left field. Questions, once asked, were generally answered. The effort spent at building up the atmosphere really did pay off with something worth thinking about. And the action scenes (which were well done) fit into the story every time, which is no mean feat nowadays...
I was pleasantly surprised. I suspect that I'm not alone on that.
** 3/4. Probably would have been *** except for the whole cat thing.
(Oh, and those meta-contextual gripes? Well, this is the first time in a while that I've gone to a Friday early-evening show, and it was also the first time in a while that I had any gripes with my fellow patrons. Please don't tell me how fine Denzel is, ladies; and kid with the cell phone, stop texting during the climax! What is it with those kinds of showings that brings out the horrible manners?)