It’s the end of the world for Denzel Washington in The Book of Eli, one of the legion of recent films (including one actually titled Legion) that suggest that while the earth may be ending, don’t worry—a People magazine cover star is just dying to save us. Eli has Denzel carrying an ancient book (no prize for guessing which one) across a barren former United States; he knows it’s important to get the book somewhere safe, because a voice told him so. Carnegie, Eli’s opposite number on this post-cataclysmic gospel tour, played with demented glee by Gary Oldman, wants the book too, because he knows that religion, when marshaled in the service of politics, can be used to control people. The goal of peace and harmony among folk is important enough that Eli and Carnegie will shoot, slice, or explode anyone who gets in their way. (When I was young, our attempts at rebirthing humanity looked different—so much for handing out evangelistic tracts.)
The Book of Eli is a surprisingly entertaining addition to the canon of films that think they’re apocalyptic just because they take place in the aftermath of widespread destruction. (The Greek root of “apocalypse” means “revelation,” not “catastrophe”—but try telling that to the guys who made The Matrix, which started the past decade of cinematic fascination with civilization’s collapse.) Eli is troubling because it sees violence as necessary to maintain peace. But it also reminds us that language is the lifeblood of our culture, and we are the stories we tell about ourselves.
I like my apocalyptic movies to have at least a hint of revelation—sure, audiences want to see buildings explode and valleys flood, but thankfully Eli is one of a few examples of cinema transcending the assumption that all we have, and all we are, is an appetite for destruction. The White Ribbon, by the magnificent Austrian director Michael Haneke, examines the relationship between repression and the roots of genocide. And even Avatar tries to say something about imperialism (before miring itself in spectacular killing, just for fun). But if apocalypse is really an unveiling of what is real, then the best recent apocalyptic movie is also the smallest: Gaia, about a woman recovering in the desert from abuse, is a genuine masterpiece in which the rebirth of a human soul equates to the renewal of the world. Gaia cost $28,000 to make, but is a richer film than The Book of Eli and its kind because it recognizes that the pursuit of happiness is not well served by skyline-dominating fireballs, but by a commitment to simply telling the truth.
Gareth Higgins, a writer and broadcaster in Carrboro, North Carolina, is the author of How Movies Helped Save My Soul.