When we say the 2010 Denzel Washington post-apocalyptic film 'The Book of Eli' is a cookie cutter action movie, we're not saying it's bad. After all, who doesn't like cookies?
Quick, go to your shelf and grab a DVD of an action movie. Or several of them. Play one, and forward the movie EXACTLY to the 60 minute mark.
You are now watching the first really pivotal action/effects sequence in the film.
Try it. At precisely the one-hour mark:
In Aliens, the marines get ambushed in the aliens' nest, wiping out most of the good guys.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker tries to assassinate Harvey Dent and "kills" Comissioner Gordon instead.
In The Matrix Reloaded, Neo fights a hundred Agent Smiths, and realizes for the first time the nature of the threat.
In Die Hard, hundreds of cops speed into the parking lot at Nakatomi Plaza while John McClane talks to Hans Gruber on the radio (note: the "Yippee kay yay motherfucker" line comes at exactly 60:00:00). And...
In The Book of Eli... (SCROLL DOWN FOR SPOILER!)
...Eli shoots a guy in the dick with a bow and arrow.
Specifically, this was because his female costar in the movie had been randomly kidnapped by rape bandits, and Eli was thus forced to intervene and recognize for the first time that he was not just in it for himself.
Obviously the 60 minute thing isn't some weird coincidence. If you google around for a guide to writing a screenplay it's always in the instructions that you need a "midpoint" scene on Page 60 (in a screen play, one page = one minute of movie). If you ever try to sell a screenplay, the first thing they do is flip to Page 60. If they don't see characters running and screaming, it goes in the trash. It means you don't know the rules.
You can amuse yourself by watching films desperately try to cling to this structure even when the story doesn't lend itself to it. Have you ever wondered why that space station in Armageddon spontaneously exploded, completely unrelated to the crisis (that is, the asteroid didn't make it explode, there was just a random fuel leak)?
It's because they had reached the 60 minute mark and needed to cram in an action scene.
In The Matrix, they're in the middle of a lull (after Neo has woken up from the Matrix, but before they head back in to meet the Oracle). They're sitting around the ship, talking, getting some exposition out of the way. Then when the clock hits 60:00...
"ALARM! Sentinels are coming! RUN!"
A couple of minutes later, "Ah, they're gone. OK, let's continue with the plot!"
If you keep up with this sort of thing you probably know that movies tend to have a Three-Act structure (aka "the movie begins, a bunch of stuff happens, the movie ends") but action movies really have four acts because the middle act is broken up into two pieces, with everything that happens after the 60 minute scene taking on a new tone and urgency than what came before. Just ask the guy got shot in the dick with an arrow.
This is of course just one of many rules about structure that gives every action movie that familiar feel. You don't have to follow ALL of these rules if you want Hollywood to spend $100 million making your movie, but you'd better not break more than one or two. You must introduce your hero and villain within the first 20 minutes, scenes should be no more than 3-5 minutes long, and so on.
It sounds complicated and it is, but really the idea behind all of it is managing the audience's very short attention spans (and we're not insulting the audience here - if we're going to stop our lives to go sit in a dark room, you'd better fucking get on with it).
So, for instance, it is scientifically proven that if a young male watches anything for more than one hour he will start to fidget and wonder if there is something else he could be doing instead. So it's at this point that you need to grab him by the shoulders and remind him that there are IMPORTANT MOVIE THINGS HAPPENING. It all comes back to, "These are the things you must do to keep your audience from checking their text messages."
The film takes place in the same gray/brown post-apocalyptic future you might recognize from hundreds of other films and video games. This setting was popularized in the 80s when studios realized it was cheaper to film in a desert or run-down factory than it was to actually build futuristic buildings and sets. This has created a generation who grew up to believe the world of the future would look like a desert or a run-down factory.
This genre is popular because it tends to feature heroes who, prior to the collapse of society, were not heroes at all. For instance, it is revealed that - SPOILER! - Eli worked in a Kmart before the apocalypse. For other examples see Zombieland and, of course, The Matrix. In video games you have Half Life 2 (from mild-mannered guy working in a lab to machine gun-toting savior of mankind - and all it took was a catastrophic alien invasion).
Eli is protecting a Bible, somehow one of the last copies on the planet, to keep it from falling into the hands of Gary Oldman who would use its magical powers for evil somehow. Eli thus becomes something of a Christ figure. Like Jesus, he wanders the landscape, preventing sinners from hearing God's word and hacking off their limbs with a machete when they try.