In the post-apocalyptic world of The Book of Eli, the most precious things on earth are a trial-size bottle of shampoo; a cache of hand wipes, individually wrapped; and the last existing copy of the King James Bible. Denzel Washington, cast as the cowboy-monk Eli, is on a mission from God. He has to carry that Bible through a landscape populated by murderous, illiterate, cannibalistic roughnecks to a safe place he saw in a dream. Eli may not be Jesus, exactly—the Christian Lord would never have been so deft with a machete—but he is in possession of some God-given magic. This protects him, his puppyish girl companion (Mila Kunis), and the book during their long journey.
An honorable prophet guarding the word of God for the future of humankind would seem an overblown premise for an action-buddy movie, but Washington is more than cartoonish. The Book of Eli provokes us to imagine all our values turned upside down. "We had more than we needed," remembers Eli of the time before the war. "We had no idea what was precious and what wasn't. We threw things away that people kill each other for now."
Audiences will doubtless react to the movie's not-so-buried Christian message, but the Bible isn't what's sacred here. It's books. For those of us in the reading and writing business—for anyone, really, who loves the written word—the movie has a powerful resonance. It reminds us that literacy can't be taken for granted. Allen and Albert Hughes, who together directed the movie, insist they're spiritual, not religious; they made no special study of Christian history. Nevertheless, the parallels to the Middle Ages are unmistakable. After the fall of Rome, literacy declined in the West; only through the efforts of the church were the Bible and the classics preserved. In one scene from Eli, a band of ruffians delivers to their boss (Gary Oldman) detritus they've found in their rampages. There, in a pile, are the relics of our civilization: a copy of O magazine and The Da Vinci Code. In the absence of libraries or schools, publishers or printing presses, meaningless fun is rendered, finally, meaningless.