Echo Bridge Home Entertainment // 2002 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // May 30th, 2011
In a future where freedom is outlawed, outlaws will become heroes.
Writer/director Kurt Wimmer's 2002 movie Equilibrium feels like a sci-fi film born from the mind of a 12-year-old. It takes one decent -- if largely nonsensical -- notion, executes with too much simplicity and downright silliness and focuses too often on stuff that's "cool," even if it flies in the face of his larger goals. It means well, but meaning well is not always enough.
Christian Bale stars as Cleric John Preston, a kind of cop/priest hybrid living in the future dystopia (disguised as a utopia, because those are things in science fiction) of Libria. After WWIII has devastated much of the planet, a new totalitarian government has taken over -- one that has banned human emotion (reasoning that it is the cause of all suffering). Citizens are required to take daily doses of a drug called Prozium, which suppresses feelings and turns people into robotic, submissive automatons willing to do the bidding of "Father," the leader of Libria who appears only on a series of TV screens. Preston's job is to hunt down "sense offenders" -- anyone found guilty of feeling, or who is in possession of art or music or books or anything that might stimulate emotion. Usually, he simply executes them on sight, often using a style of fighting called Gun Kata, which is basically just shooting everyone while doing karate poses (apparently, Gun Kata makes you faster and better than everyone else, so Preston can take out dozens of men firing on him with machine guns and never suffer so much as a scratch). When Preston skips his dose one day, it sets off a series of changes within him akin to an awakening; coupled with emotions being stirred by a recently arrested sense offender (played by Emily Watson of Punch-Drunk Love), Preston becomes a changed man -- much to the increasing suspicion of his new partner (Taye Diggs, House on Haunted Hill).
I'll give Equilibrium credit for this: it's very, very earnest and appears to believe its own nonsense (by that I mean everyone is able to say things like "sense offender" and "Gun Kata" and the ever-present "FEELINGS!" with straight faces). The fact that it has things it wants to say about government, art and humanity are to be applauded, since most action movies have no interest in anything but fights and shootouts (which is to say nothing against fights and shootouts). I cannot say the movie works, though, because the way this material is handled is so clumsy and broad and simplistic that it undermines its own messages -- the execution falls far short of the intent, noble as it may be. Even the premise is quite inconsistent, as even the characters who are supposed to emotionless robots are very much guided by emotions. Characters who are supposedly taking their daily dose of Prozium still get married and have kids. Taye Diggs (who is out of his depth and overacting to a distracting degree) is constantly smiling throughout the film. If that's not tied into an emotion, I don't know what smiling is. It's not entirely Wimmer's fault; I think the idea of a world in which all emotion is suppressed is a good one, but possibly lends itself better to a novel. It's too hard to dramatize such a conceit, and even harder to make consistent. The needs of the story keep interfering with the logic of the plot.
If only that were the limits of Equilibrium's problems. This is the kind of sci-fi film in which there are video screens everywhere with the fact of "Father" (clever name, that), a British man (because of course he's British) whose only function is to describe the society to its inhabitants. What? Why would a society need to be told what it already knows on a constant basis? Of course, the real reason he's in the film is to dump exposition on us -- we're the ones who need to understand the rules of Libria and how it came to be (this saves Equilibrium the trouble of opening with a text crawl, making it one of the few sci-fi films to do so). It's a cheap storytelling shortcut disguised as a touch of Orwell. Also, Libria (the exact name a 12-year-old would come up with for his future society) is one of the worst totalitarian states ever. Contraband is literally everywhere, and there's an outbreak of resistance fighters on a nightly basis. There has to be, I guess, so that Equilibrium can be punctuated by gunfights every 15-20 minutes.
The gun battles make for some of the movie's best moments, even though they have nothing to do with what the movie is about -- it's as though Wimmer had two movies he wanted to make, but instead smashed them together into one. A more cynical mind might argue that the gun battles are there because of The Matrix, to which Equilibrium owes more than a small debt. While I think it's definitely an influence on this movie, I don't think Wimmer was directly aping what the Wachowskis had done. I think he had come up with the idea for Gun Kata, silly as it may be, and desperately wanted to show it off in a movie. Like so much of Equilibrium, it's a 12-year old's idea of what's cool.
Christian Bale's turn from grim, expressionless drone to tortured, "feeling" (but still expressionless, because Christian Bale) human is almost comically overwrought. His first awakening comes when he looks out his window and is moved at the sight of a rainbow. Later, he begins to weep when he hears a record of a symphony -- which also allows him to drop the snow globe he's holding so that it can fall towards the camera in slow motion before shattering on the floor. Perhaps the most hilarious development is when he's forced to hide his melting heart as an adorable puppy is shoved in his face and licks his nose. Seriously. The only thing that's missing is a soot-covered Dickensian orphan tugging on his sleeve, begging "Pwweeese mista, can I have a huuuug?"
Equilibrium arrives on Blu-ray from Echo Bridge, as part of their first wave dump of catalogue titles taken over from Dimension Films. Like pretty much every other Blu-ray release from this wave (a list that includes the Blu-ray releases of From Dusk Till Dawn and Halloween H20), the studio has screwed things up. The film, originally presented in a 2.35 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio, has been opened up to 1.78:1; while it removes the black bars (I thought we were past this) and doesn't take away much visual information, it's still the wrong aspect ratio and not the way the film was intended to be seen. Beyond even that, though, there are problems with the transfer. Colors are bleak and washed out throughout, but that's mostly a function of the source (that's the way the movie looks on its best day). Dirt, scratches and debris are visible throughout, and though detail ranges from good to decent in most scenes, there are several where DNR has been applied enough to make Christian Bale appear waxy and fake looking. Add to the list an overabundance of edge enhancement, and you've got a transfer that's rife with issues.
The only audio option presented in a two-channel stereo track that, despite being uncompressed (which is almost more than I could have hoped for given what Echo Bridge has done with the rest of the disc), feels wrong for Equilibrium. All of the dialogue and effects are presented in the front channels, and though everything remains audible there's a flatness to it all that doesn't quite work. With the insane amount of gunfire in the movie, it's crying out for a full 5.1 surround mix; in better hands, there are moments in Equilibrium that could have made for a reference quality audio track. Instead, we once again get the bare minimum. The only bonus feature is a standard four-minute promotional featurette called "Finding Equilibrium" that is of no value. Still, it's one more bonus feature than a lot of the Echo Bridge titles have received.
I know that Equilibrium has a devoted following, none of whom will be too pleased with this review. To those people, I would say that I'm happy you have found a film that you love. I would also say that much of what is said in Equilibrium has been said in done in other, better sci-fi films, and I encourage you to seek those out.
A problematic movie and an even more problematic disc. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R