The Book of Eli is the kind of film that is impossible to discuss the merits or demerits of without coming out and saying what the book here is. There are a few reveals in the end that are spoiler territory, and I won't cover them, but if you do not want to know what the book is, understand this: The Book of Eli is a fun action film with one big idea that if you buy it, will keep you entertained. It has problems, but those are not with the craft, but thematic, and you can probably still have a good 2 hours of entertainment.
For the rest of you who do not have problems with knowing that one thing (and I promise there aren't any more spoilers), read on.
So the book in The Book Of Eli is The Bible, specifically the King James Version. The film has one big idea that it wants you to fall behind, and that is that there is just one copy of the Bible left in the entire world. That when there was a religious war, those left behind after the apocalypse decided to burn all religious texts, and this is the only one left. For the sake of a well-made film, I urge you to, like me, believe in this main conceit and run with it.
That's because the film can sing. As someone intimately involved with the video games industry as well, I am quite sick and tired of the gray, washed out palette of the destruction laden apocalyptic future, but if there is one more piece of entertainment you must endure of that colour, let this be it. The film has a great sense of mood and atmosphere, and the Hughes Brothers create an entirely believable world that often feels like a science fiction western.
The pacing of the film feels great, too. Punctuated with some great action beats where Denzel Washington gets to kick some serious butt, the film has a sense of pacing that never feels breakneck, and yet isn't languorous. This is old school storytelling without flashy jumps in narrative, and it feels right.
The acting is almost universally great, too. I'll come back to Gary Oldman specifically in a bit, but everyone else is absolutely smashing. Denzel is great as the deliberate and stoic Eli, especially in the earlier character bits where he simply exudes charisma from under those sunglasses. It isn't Oscar material, but it is just this side of entertainingly attitudinal - and completely authentic to the mood and tone of the film. The one exception, perhaps, is Mila Kunis. Her character is impossibly beautiful and well turned out in this sweaty, dusty, grimy future, and not at all believable. Her screechy, and often one-note, acting doesn't help either.
The Hughes brothers love spending time setting up mood and atmosphere, and deploy well-intentioned visuals and good old storytelling to do so. Even with a blight like From Hell
on the resume, their skill has only improved over time. The Book of Eli has them using their strength to create a very broad yet buyable vision, and never does it feel ludicrous. They set this world up with proper futurism, exploring noble and evil intentions through the scope they created.
Which is where the problem creeps in - by making Eli a complete noble Zen Samurai, and Carnegie (Oldman) a completely evil man with a nefarious person, The Hughes Brothers rob the film of its central conceit. The fact that one man has noble intentions, and the other, evil, for a religious book, takes away from what makes the great religious divide a question to ponder on in the first place. If both sides of the coin truly believed in their religious purpose, only coming at it from a different viewpoint, that could have given the film more heft, and not felt silly and old school.
This does give Oldman plenty of reason to gnash his teeth, roll his eyes, spit, and generally show theatrics the kind of which he is capable of. Which is a pity, because instead of this cackling Bond villain reject, the film needed a character with as much restrained belief as the opposite guy, for us to have an actual moral dilemma in our hands.
Keeping it the way it is, the film is a lesson in how not to create characters - the completely good and completely evil dichotomy keeps this film in the same forgettable company as older, inferior films. It's a pity that the great atmosphere could not be maintained by better characters and motivations, but as it stands, the film is entertaining and fun. It is throwaway entertainment, but well made, and well acted in nevertheless.
Give it a go if you like your heroes straight as an arrow and your villains completely evil, and your babes completely hot.