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Dei Ex Machinis are BAD.

January 17, 2010

Book of EliWarning! This post is a review/rant about the movie The Book of Eli. If you have not watched this movie, yet desire to watch it unspoiled, then you probably should avoid this note. You have been warned.

If you do not recall from your English Literature class, I’ll remind you that a deus ex machina is a plot device where a previously unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved, usually through the contrived introduction of characters, abilities, or objects not mentioned before in the storyline. (Yes, you could’ve wiki’d for that.) I guess wikipedia isn’t a good source, but I will say I think whatever anonymous entity who wrote the article on dei ex machinis was spot on when s/he wrote: [dei ex machinis are] generally considered to be a poor storytelling technique because [they] undermine the story’s internal logic.

Dei ex machinis (gods from the machines, as it were,) are usually bad enough in regular instances (Oh, like War of the Worlds…can nothing defeat the martians?! Wait? The Common Cold?! of course!), but I’m here to tell you that the worst god from the machine *is* God.

Now, to be candid, I went into this movie blind (is that a spoiler or an inside joke?) I only knew the name and that it had something to do with a post-apocalyptic society. That’s it. So, I wasn’t out to expect something from the movie (and then be disappointed when it didn’t deliver). I was going in fresh.

…but now, I still think there is so much the Hughes brothers and Gary Whitta could’ve done with this movie. Really, I’m a huge fan of characterization of post-apocalyptic societies, and I think that this movie gave nibbles at such a characterization…but overall, it underwhelmed.

Now, to be sure, there was plenty of action, and I also like action. So, I loved that. I those parts were great. But other than that, I think the movie dropped plenty of balls.

I don’t mean to be a bawwww angstheist atheist guy, but from a strictly literary perspective, I want to remind everyone that dei ex machinis are considered cheap (like, worse than M. Night Shyamalanification cheap). A deus ex machina that ends up actually being God (or the spirit, or the promptings of the spirit) is that much more dissatisfying. I mean, really…how did Eli know to go west? What was the voice in his head? For it literally to be God, for him literally to be walking by faith…that is utterly outrageous from a plot perspective. I imagine that even if you’re religious, this doesn’t seem great.

How did he get such amazing Daredevil-like (oh spoilers) skills? And he was BLIND too? Did he become blinded in the war or was he blind from earlier (like the other woman)? If he became blinded in the flash, whenever did he learn Braille?

What was on his iPod (other than the music from around the beginning and the Johnny Cash he alluded to)? Given the plot problems with his blindness and Braille, BEAR WITH ME, but I have a pet theory that he couldn’t read braille at all. INSTEAD, he had the Bible as an e-book on his iPod and memorized it based on that! This would at least make sense (given his urgency for trying to get the iPod recharged AND how Solara, at the end of the movie, determinedly walks back east with the ipod and machete). If he had the Bible on eBook, that would make it more plausible too that he gave the braille Bible away. (OK, this is just my little pet theory; I know it’s ridiculous, but let me have this one joy).

But who does SOLARA think SHE is at the end of the movie? She can’t fight. She doesn’t know the Bible (even after presumably being in Alcatraz for so long while Eli dictated it)…why did she take the iPod? Did she think she could get magic god power too? Would God come out of the box for her?

How the heck did Eli survive getting shot in the stomach? Maybe I’m not aware of science enough, but it seems like you don’t just survive that. Unless God is responsible for THAT one too. Or how did he avoid getting hit even once earlier in the movie at the shootout in the town? Was poor aim by the mooks or God responsible for that?

The movie could’ve gone so much further. Maybe I’m biased…I love mayhem and carnage (so I enjoyed the gunfights and swordfights plenty), but the ultimate carnage that *could* have been wrought would be some flashback talking about the war that led to the disaster (with nuclear eye candy…doesn’t everyone love nuclear eye candy?) The development of a post-apocalyptic society would have been interesting to hear about, but I guess this demand from the social scientist in me is too unreasonable. The few moments when characters checked hands (was it the same as checking for the shaky hands of a cannibal?) did great things for the atmosphere, but still…the atmosphere was thin. That probably got nuked along with everything else.

Christopher Hitchens

Maybe he's the reason why there's only one Bible...

And let’s take Carnegie. Now, Gary Oldman is an amazing actor, of course. But is his demented obsession and…unsatisfying nature as a villain…just supposed to be from too much irradiation? I mean, he has control of a town due to monopoly on water…isn’t that enough? Does he really believe that religion and the Bible will give him more control (OK, so I’m sure angstheists like Hitchens or Harris would be glad to argue that religion does lead to exactly that: madness, mania, and power hunger)? I suppose that the obsession would make sense if God truly were supposed to be the thing that made the entire movie work…otherwise, it simply ramps of the demented-old-man feel for Oldman’s character.

To be honest, I really enjoyed the action. And normally, I don’t get this way after movies. But…by the end of the movie, I was definitely wishing there was a lot more than Mila Kunis trying to appear awesome.

Now, a treat for all of my Mormon readers (if you’ve read with me far enough…did I remember to tell you that this is a rated R movie?). If you are willing to see the movie, try to watch it as if it is a dramatic and action-packed reenactment of key elements of the early Mormon story.

Hearing a voice? Explicitly making a comment about not denying that voice (even though it seems crazy) because it is true? Going to an unknown place and digging to find a book? Going west to find sa better place? When Eli talks about smelling salt, it’s so easy to say he’s found the place — the Great Salt Lake — before coming back to reality that it’s the Pacific Ocean. And this may be a stretch, but if we ignore that the Word of Wisdom actually came out much later in LDS history, Eli’s reluctance to drink tea would make sense…he’s judiciously obeying the Word of Wisdom. Needless to say, eating people also probably goes against the WoW (or maybe it’s just…eat people sparingly?)

I mean, if you want to get subversive, I can continue. Didn’t Joseph not even need the plates after a while to translate them? Well, Eli doesn’t need the book to dictate it to his trusty scribe either!

Too much of a stretch? OK, I guess you’re right.


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  1. I have not read your post at all because I don’t want it spoiled for me, but after reading Eric D. Snider’s review (he gave it a B and applauded it for the novelty of an action hero with religious conviction) and hearing the Escapist review, Paul and I totally want to go see this.

  2. I think that 1) good call on not reading my rant/review, and 2) you should go see it. I won’t say much in particular, but based on Eric Snider’s review and the Escapist review, I think they really captured the sense of the movie (minus the one thing you’ll have to find out for yourself, lol)

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