Finally, a movie for believers

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"Eli's coming ... get down on your knees."

I played the song, "Eli's Coming," by Three Dog Night, over and over on my stereo as a teenager. Even now, I can remember turning it up loud in the basement and hearing my mother stomp on the upstairs floor in complaint.

If you're looking to do something tonight -- if the Super Bowl is not appealing to you, that is -- I suggest going to see Eli.

"The Book of Eli" is a film that Hollywood doesn't make often. As I watched it with my eldest daughter last weekend, the thought occurred: Maybe this is a test from Tinseltown. It might be that film moguls want to discover if there is a market for movies that take the Judeo-Christian heritage seriously. Clearly, people of faith are seen as weak-minded fools in such programs as "Family Guy," "South Park" and "The Simpsons." Watch "Adult Swim" some night on cable. If you're a believer, the cartoons you will see there will attempt to make you feel like a buffoon. There is nothing of the buffoon about Eli. There's nothing weak -- either in mind or body -- about this brooding character on a simple mission, played by Denzel Washington.

Without giving the story away -- because I want you to see it -- "The Book of Eli" boils down to two protagonists, Eli (Washington) and Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman. They both value the same thing -- a sacred book that Washington's been carrying for 30 years after a war destroyed nearly everything on Earth. He carries the tome carefully, wrapping in cloth and secured in a backpack. Carnegie wants it because he is certain the book can give him the power he craves, the control he so desperately wishes to grasp.

Eli's motives are purer. He is carrying the book westward after receiving a private revelation. "With all my heart," he says, Eli wants the book to be read again by those who will be freed by it. Carnegie will use it to enslave others, and so Eli fights to keep it from him.

Late in the picture, although obvious clues are planted earlier, it is revealed that Eli's precious cargo is the last known copy of the King James Version of the Bible. All the others have been burned. I cannot remember another motion picture in my 51 years of living in which the Bible was the central plot device.

This postapocalyptic film is rated R. Don't take little ones to see it. There is an unfortunate amount of gratuitous reproductive profanity and the movie is plenty violent, although it stops just this side of gory.

It is an unfortunate fact that in order to gain a wide audience, films must pander to those who expect vulgarity in language and in conduct. I bemoan it at the same time as I understand it.

"The Book of Eli" has been out since mid-January to mixed reviews. Yes, it gets off to a glacially slow start as we get to know Washington's character. If you hang with this story, set in a bleak landscape (filmed, incidentally, in New Mexico), you'll be rewarded. If you are a believer and you don't leave the theater thinking you've just spent a worthwhile two hours of your life, I'll be surprised.

I like critic Roger Ebert's take: "You won't be sorry you went. It grips your attention." If we want more movies like this, we've got to support them now with our dollars.

Go see it before it goes away.

If not tonight -- after all, it is the Super Bowl -- then soon.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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