We men have a default for action. So when the apocalypse arrives, we don’t plan on hunkering down, or trying to plant new crops.
No, we will hit the road, even if we don’t know where we’re going and, believe me, we’re not asking directions. For us, the idea is to keep moving.
My own personal take on the apocalypse is that it won’t be awesome, and it won’t be like a movie. It will be grimy, and personal hygiene will suffer, but the reason it’s called the apocalypse is that life will get cruel, short, and random, leaving precious few lines of witty dialogue to speak, or elegantly-staged action sequences to unfold.
Some filmmakers see things differently, and a surprising number of them, from Stanley Kramer (On the Beach) to Franklin Schaffner (Planet of the Apes) to the Georges Romero (Dawn of the Dead) and Miller (the Mad Max trilogy) have been able to convince studios to let them finance their grim visions for the masses to enjoy at the cineplex.
If our entire civilization falls in a forest, will it be heard in SurroundSound at the box office? That’s one of the questions we try to answer in this classic Smack.
Eli (Denzel Washington) has a Very Sacred Book, and for thirty years since the apocalypse, he’s been walking west and, even post-Armageddon, taking an awful long time to get there. It seems from his apparent invincibility and the voice in his head that guides him that God is on his side. In fact, religious symbolism at times threatens to overwhelm this story, with Eli a postmodern-day Moses, traveling through the desert to deliver his holy text to a safe place.
At the same time, there’s enough action, violence and intrigue to keep even the most godless heathen engaged. The Hughes Brothers, who directed, clearly recognize the star power of Denzel Washington, who dispatches his onscreen antagonists with a more focused intensity than even Charlton Heston in his prime could muster.
The Defending Champion
Ten years after the lights go out, The Man (Viggo Mortenson) has a shopping cart, a torn map and two bullets, as he and The Boy push through the empty byways of this cold and dreary world, trying to get to the ocean. They don’t even have God, just faith.
While not what you would call a laugh riot, The Road did benefit enormously from the tremendous word of mouth surrounding Cormac McCarthy’s book on which it is based. By winning a 2007 Pulitzer Prize weeks after being selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club, the book was guaranteed the kind of attention that makes a movie deal possible for even the bleakest subject matter.
If it’s bleakness you want, The Road does not disappoint. Hewing closely to McCarthy’s vision, the filmmakers shot long sequences in the decaying cities and coal fields of Pennsylvania, Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and the volcanic wasteland of Mount St. Helens to portray the aftermath of an apocalypse that some might say has already begin in real life.
Although both films have a lot in common, like the threats from cannibals, abandoned shopping carts, and people with extremely bad teeth hogging the roadways, The Book of Eli is clearly the more commercial film project. It’s shot like an action film, it has a town that could be Dodge City where our good guy can take on the bad guys, and there are effects and fights like mad.
Both Denzel and Viggo, besides having great, uncommon names, are also fine actors who have committed to the roles they play.
The films, though, are deeply different in their structure: The Book of Eli has all the markings of a screenwriting program behind it (complete with surprise ending coming after a trail of clues) while The Road moves in fits and starts without a neat plan, like the book that inspired it. There’s a familiarity to The Book of Eli, down to the fact that my son and his friend both said it reminded them mightily of the videogame, Fallout 3. The logic behind The Book of Eli is flawed throughout. It doesn’t look or sound like a real post-apocalypse but like that videogame. The Road operates more-or-less logically until the coincidental end, but that’s not going to be a plus for a lot of people, who will write it off as too damn depressing and warn their friends not to see it, while giving the more familiar The Book of Eli a qualified endorsement.
Finally, the treatment of religion is actually a bigger difference between these two films than their treatment of the apocalypse. At its core, The Road pretty much says that God is dead and we’re on our own, while The Book of Eli tries to argue that no matter how bad things get, God still is working His plan.
The Book of Eli kicked the ass out of The Road at the box office because, frankly, people don’t go to apocalypse movies to see how f***ed up it’s going to get for real, but to have a good time. And while there is a certain amount to like in The Book of Eli, and Denzel is always sensational even if reading the phone book (and here he gets to read text that is a little more high-minded), for me, it’s not enough. I want some authentic meaning. I got that from The Road.