"Beyond Thunderdome" with a Bible, but Without Tina Turner
Unfortunately, all those superficial flaws of the post-apocalyptic story-line conceal the fundamental flaws of a parable that pretends to be Deep and Spiritual and Righteous but ends up being nothing more than a parable of utterly empty religious self-righteousness.
The story starts with Eli (Denzel Washington), walking across a completely desolate North America, carrying the last intact copy of the King James Bible (more on that later), kicking ass like a Samurai cowboy when people try to kill him, but inexplicably refusing to take action when he sees innocent people being robbed and killed, even though the robbers are smaller in number and don't see him, because he thinks transporting a Bible to an unspecified location somewhere "west" is more important. And we're supposed to think of him as the good guy?
Then there's Carnegie, who's managed to cobble up a government for some surviving humans in a town in what used to be New Mexico, and wants to expand his control to a neighboring town or two -- which is what people will need if civilization and social order as we know it are suddenly destroyed. And we're supposed to think of him as the bad guy?
Apparently Carnegie isn't bad because he wants to conquer neighboring towns; he's bad because he wants to use the "beautiful words" in Eli's Bible to jazz up and justify his quest for power, and tries to kill Eli when he refuses to cooperate in this religio-political campaign.
And apparently Eli isn't good because he does good deeds (he doesn't do nearly as many as he could), or because he tries to actually use that Bible to inspire others to do good (he doesn't); he's good because he's dedicated his life to the single task of transporting the Bible to a location still unknown to him, without even asking what will be done with it after it gets there -- and without making any attempt to share or spread any of the Bible's wisdom with any of the clearly destitute people he meets on his way. I mean, Eli had a perfect chance to cut a deal with Carnegie's second-in-command (after he had chosen not to shoot Eli on Carnegie's direct orders), stage a coup, and impose some semblance of Bible-based order on the town; but instead he left the place to Carnegie's obvious misrule just so he could keep on walking west and bartering valuable gloves and tools for a canteen full of water.
Mad Max, Beyond Thunderdome had the same stupid false dichotomy: the woman trying to restore order and get people producing what they need was the bad guy, and the self-absorbed nomad who didn't want to help in this necessary task was the good guy. Who writes this stuff, and where did they get their values?
And if Carnegie could take over one town without the Bible's "beautiful words," why does he suddenly need them to take over other towns? Couldn't he just take control of the local wells and give the people the order and civil society they need? And if the Bible's words were really that beautiful and useful, then why did so many people burn all the Bibles right after the war that "tore a hole in the sky?" And if the Bible wasn't available, wouldn't a few copies of the Koran do in a pinch? Did everyone burn the writings of Confucius as well?
I don't regret seeing this movie; but the more I think about it, the more I wonder why it was made at all. And it wasn't really "made" so much as thrown together: a disorderly heap of images, cardboard-cut-out characters, poorly-thought-out ideas, poorly-plagirized plots from other movies, false and senseless conflicts between bogus notions of "good" and "evil," and a worse misuse of Denzel Washington's talents than I ever thought possible.
Seriously, folks, I've seen Denzel in Inside Man, Crimson Tide, Deja Vu, American Gangster, and Pelham 123. He has a unique persona that's part dorkiness, part confident menace, and lots of solid authority. Whether he's playing a bureaucrat/technician, a gang leader, or a mutinous missile-boat XO, his characters simply take over whatever scenes they're in and rally the viewers to get behind them. As Eli, however, he has absolutely no such authority, and his persona is ignominiously buried under a ragged beard, a badly-written script, and a moldy puree of mushy fake spirituality. And no, having Denzel kick more ass doesn't make up for the loss.