Our review of Equilibrium (Blu-ray), published May 30th, 2011, is also available.
In a future where freedom is outlawed, outlaws will become heroes.
Why is it that every new cinematic vision of the future is bathed in pessimism and bleakness? Only a few decades ago we looked toward our technological destiny with a large smiley face and neo-art deco designs. We envisioned robots as companions, push button meal plans, and universal peace. Like Timbuk 3 put it so one hit wonderfully, life beyond the 22nd century looked so bright and perky, we all needed a pair of Tom Cruise Wayfarers. But thanks to downers like Blade Runner, The Handmaid's Tale, A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, Gattaca, Logan's Run, The Matrix, and THX 1138, we now envision the next hundred centuries as being a potential pitfall in the evolution of man's progress toward self actualization. The pervasive view of far off civilization, as seen through the myopic eyes of these austere dreams, is that we will create a chaos from whence society devolves into a series of socialist orders, Big Brother broadcasts, and civil rights disregarding thought police. Add to this list of the hopeless view for humanity the 2002 sci-fi spectacle, Equilibrium. Buried within its outstanding stunt work and inventive firearm displays is the same tired notion of a nation under the paternalistic power of oppression. The world in which the characters live is devoid of sensation, of the basic human principles of emotion. And Equilibrium is too guilty of being empty. While its presentation of an omnipresent police state is filled with stunning eye candy and unique action set pieces, it is missing a heart, a reason to care about what happens to the characters within this neo-Nazi regime.
Facts of the Case
Several years after the Third World War, a new society called Libria is founded on the notion of maintaining peace by removing the primary force behind violent behavior: emotion. Their scientific studies have found that feelings and passion act as catalysts resulting in war and crime. Therefore, this new totalitarian state bans the possession of all art, music, and literature. To further suppress the sensations of the populace, the government provides daily injections of a mood-altering drug. And to enforce their laws, they set up a secret police called the Grammaton Clerics. They are trained in advance fighting techniques, like martial arts and the computer formulated gun katta. These elite troops then travel throughout Libria and its outlying Nethers to combat sense offenders, individuals whose goal it is to reintroduce emotion to society.
The supreme Cleric is John Preston. He serves directly under the Vice-Council and Father, the leader of Libria. Preston is so precise, so devoid of human connection, that he sheds no tears when his wife is arrested and destroyed for crimes of emotion. He even investigates and decommissions his partner for falling under the spell of passion. But Preston is far from perfect. Lately, he has wondered about the idea of sentiment. He longs to experience beauty and moods. So he stops taking his daily medication, and the world of sensations slowly opens before his eyes. But this also makes him vulnerable to internal censure and even death. Hot on his heels is new partner Brandt, a fellow Cleric looking to make a name for himself. And he is willing to step on Preston to get ahead.
During a raid on a home, Preston meets Mary, an associate of the rebellion. She is arrested and, during a search, he discovers her treasure trove of art and music. Feeling himself slipping more and more into emotion, he sets up a meeting with the Vice-Council on the premise that he will infiltrate and destroy the radical Underground movement. But Preston really wants to join them, to understand this new world of passion and pain and help restore normalcy to society. He also wants to save Mary from being destroyed. But who or what can he trust? Brandt? The Vice-Council? The rebel leader Jurgen? Or is it hopeless? Is everything and everyone Preston knows a spy or a conspiracy?
It's hard to say if emotion is really the catalyst to all violence. Surely one can see the connection between crimes committed in the legally legitimized "heat of passion" and impulsive felonious acts. But then, aren't impulses feelings? If you get the "urge" to steal a bicycle or car, or have a "need" for money, aren't those sensations that create crime as well? It seems hard then to imagine how feelings and misdeeds are not connected. They appear so interlocked that only a complete removal of any and all desires would result in a calm and peaceful society. But the only way to achieve that level of non-evocative ennui is to require mass lobotomies. Or, like in the movie Equilibrium, medicate the multitude back to the stone ages. And yet it still seems odd that there would be no desire for power, no want of superiority of man over man. Those ideals are so basic to the makeup of human nature that to eradicate them eradicates the human race as written by instinct. And could we really do that? Could we really destroy mankind and create a new race of stabilized zombies, individuals so devoid of the basic function of want that they wouldn't care if society was safe and sound and that the world was protected and at peace? Seems if you destroy desire, you destroy people's ability to care if they have it or not. So then you do nothing if you eliminate emotion except eliminate the need for it. Seems rather pointless.
Such a circular argument represents a basic problem with this movie. Equilibrium is something very good undone by its own cinematic cowardice to be truly prophetic. It begins with a premise that is well worn and recognizable within the genre of science fiction. It provides attractive actors and actresses smartly essaying their roles as futuristic archetypes. It then mounts it all within a post-Communist Eastern bloc set design scheme that emphasizes the fascist aspects of the story while presenting a Brave New World Order fourth Reich fashion sense. Then add some Matrix inspired fight scenes and some original to its production gun battles and you have something that should soar, that should move beyond its Stranger in a Strange Land sameness to say something important about life, art, emotion and passion. But Equilibrium can't quite figure out how it feels about the corrosion of conformity. It champions pacifism as it exploits violence. It defends intense fervor as it fails to create much of it on screen. It asks us to accept the saving grace of emotional connections, but then resolves all issues in a hailstorm of ammunition. Equilibrium could have been brave and explained the self-fulfilling prophecy of allowing emotion to control the world. But since it wants to discuss deadening the soul as it simultaneously attempts to satisfy it, the whole enterprise becomes a mish-mash of misplaced ideas.
Some of the problems lie in the screenplay. The movie does initially come off as one big goof, suffering from what the cast and crew of Mystery Science Theater 3000 would call pseudo sci-fi speak. Instead of drawing on technological or cultural references to redefine and name everyday ideas and objects within this new futuristic society, entities and things seem hampered by silly Buck Rodgers meets Rocket Jones style monikers. The secret police are referred to as Grammaton Clerics. The country/city they live in is called Libria. The outskirts are called the Nethers and criminals are sense offenders. Residents must take frequent intervals of Prozium. And all contraband is labeled EC-10. Then there is the story arc, which seems to dissipate after an hour or so. We see at the beginning that Preston is a fantastic and threatening entity, the kind of hard assed anti-hero we can get behind. He is primed to blow off the lid on something, be it a horrible government conspiracy or the truth behind the city/state of Libria. So what are we treated to as a plot, what wonderful action packed journey does our acrobatic anti-hero take us on? Why, a journey of self-discovery. (Oh goody.) Now mind you, there is nothing wrong with bathing a bang and zoom bombathon in quizzical moral and interpersonal issues. Some of the best action/science fiction does this. But Preston's inner light is rather dim and why we should go along for the dusky ride seems specious at best. Equilibrium would have been so much better if it took its epic notions and truly expanded them into a farsighted, imaginative exploration of emotion in society. Instead, we are offered a tiny tale filled with comical technobabble.
Still, the film is not a complete failure. The one thing you have to grant Equilibrium is that it contains gun battles and fist fights that reset the benchmark for exciting arsenal anarchy. Like The Matrix, which gave the world bullet time, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which cemented wire fighting as a means of heightening the thrill of combat with exacting choreography, Equilibrium introduces Gun Katta, a Cleric founded martial arts ballet that allows the enforcers to predict and anticipate close quarters gun fighting and hand to hand combat. Then, through a series of precise, dance like movements, a Cleric can take on several combatants, using exacting, fluid actions to eliminate his attackers. Given a decidedly artistic presentation within the course of the film, these rapid-fire rhapsodies are exhilarating and oddly beautiful. They glamorize death as an abstract expression of powder bursts and shrieking projectiles. Used as part of a more successful narrative, you'd see numerous other movies mimicking these tangos of travesty. But since it's the best parts of a flawed storyline, they tend to call attention to themselves and almost instantly become overexposed. By the final hand to hand showdown between Preston and the true leader of Libria, you tell yourself "oh great, another envelope pushing fight scene."
The casting is also first rate. The actors chosen here never once break the pretense. They play every scene, every idea deadly serious. Christian Bale is like a supermodel gone sour, able to act aggressive and be filled with anxiety with equal skill. He is best in full Cleric mode, where his stern façade and athletic grace serve him well. However, in the scenes of emotional turmoil, he has a more forced effect. Equally mixed is Taye Diggs, who thinks that the role of a narrow minded, unfeeling government agent requires him to be suave and smiling. Still, he has a presence that exudes authority, which really helps during the final acts revelations and double crosses. Emily Watson, unfortunately, is relegated to a glorified cameo. She is onscreen for no longer than ten minutes total, and she has very little to say or do except appear defiant in the face of imminent death. Yet all these actors seem perfectly at home within the space first-time director Kurt Wimmer creates. Even in their performance missteps, they seem totally believable in this world. Wimmer's society is built on façades and falsehoods, where true personalities are dictated away by drugs or decree. The actors try their best. But again, it's too bad there's not more here for them to interact with. Wimmer is not enough of a visionary to create a world solely unto itself. Cribbing from every sci-fi movie ever made, he creates nothing original, but instead discovers a strange cinematic stasis for his movie. By paying homage to everything, he flattens and deadens it all.
And this is the true problem with Equilibrium. There is no life in this movie. When pulse racing gun battles are the most evocative thing about a movie set hundreds of years in the future, there is something wrong with the visualization. The Matrix may marvel with its technological slights of hand, but when the reveal is made that humans were nothing more than batteries to power electricity hungry machines, there was genuine shock and sensationalism in that disclosure. In Equilibrium, we get no great moment of epiphany. Instead, it's a lot like Sleeper except without a sense of humor or humanity. This is a very cold movie about emotions. Unless we accept Preston's progress as the only reason to be involved in this film, everything else seems like a set up for something that never materializes. Equilibrium would have been better had the "no senses" philosophy been followed to its logical end, to be brave enough to let its dispirited view of the future play through to its natural end. Had we learned that, even without emotion, war and crime would continue to rage, or if we found out that new sensations like power and corruption would take the place of pleasure and joy, then this would have been a profound examination of the human spirit. As it stands, Equilibrium cheats, pays us off with a standard third act battle royale that ditches thinking for intense action set pieces and leaves us wondering—without giving anything away—if the final result was so simple, why it took this long to achieve it. There should have been more to this film than good acting and great action.
Dimension Films offers Equilibrium in a fairly defect free, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that highlights the filmmakers obsession with James Cameron's blue and silver color schemes. During one sequence of complete darkness, we can see pixelation around the corners of the frame, but overall, the image is sharp with deep rich blacks and an accurate recreation of the setting's sepia tones. On the sonic side, we get an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track that paints an unnerving aural picture as precisely as the image does. Through the use of separate channels, ambient noises, and misdirection, we feel completely involved in scenes and circumstances. Graciously, Dimension allows for two commentary tracks to provide insight and context to a film that, for many, will be an unknown quantity. The first track, featuring director Kurt Wimmer alone, is very engaging. Wimmer wants to win the audience over to his belief in his own project and he is a very adept salesman. He discusses how he came up with the idea of gun katta and exposes the tricks that make it such a memorable stunt. He explains script changes and character development. He even goes into detail over using buildings in East Berlin left over from the days of the Nazis. Track two features Wimmer with producer Lucas Foster, and it's far more joke and anecdote oriented. Wimmer still dominates (and occasionally repeats information), but Lucas offers his bean counter perception on making a big idea sci-fi flick on a low rent Hollywood budget. Along with a few trailers (including, oddly, one for the future Tarantino release Kill Bill) we get a decent DVD package, one that presents the movie in a stellar light while helping to explain its ideas and existence.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's a shame to dismiss Equilibrium as generic when it tries so hard to differentiate itself in the world of science fiction post-Neo. Let's face it; The Matrix has, frankly, ruined the sci-fi film for the next couple of decades. Everything and anything that tries to explore our fate "up ahead" gets lumped into the Wachowskis' messiah movie and banished as an afterthought. Problem is, that an exercise in imagination like The Matrix sets the bar so overwhelming high that it takes time, and a new approach to cinema, to undermine its omnipresence. So let's remove Equilibrium from the compare and contrast critical board and celebrate its style and its sophistication. Let's see gun katta for what it really is—a new language for the until-John-Woo dead gun battle ideal. Better yet, the set design and computer graphics create a realistic, believable future world, one that seems at both foreign and familiar. There are no thousand-story buildings or multi-tentacle cyborgs. In reality, Equilibrium is not science fiction so much as political speculation. It's that mainstay of movies, the cautionary tale, twisted into a decidedly dense and deceptive action thriller. While it may not always deliver in the thought department, we sure get some wonderful visual flourishes. And if a sci-fi film can stir your imagination, it's won most of the battle.
Eventually, someone will paint the future in the bright golden rays of promise. We will dismiss the noir-like nights filled with propaganda spouting dirigibles and avoid the cult-like conceits of mass hypnosis and brainwashing. We will see a time where humans and robots coexist without complicated interpersonal family issues or blind machine prejudice and where aliens will visit to exchange ideas, not destroy important landmarks. There should be a light at the end of this dismal time tunnel, a chance for humanity to prove that it's not doomed to poison, overpopulate, or politicize itself to death. But mired in its mindset of dark oppression, Equilibrium still believes that gloom awaits our prospective social orders. All it can see is an epoch where sensation causes not calms chaos. And even when it tries to flower, to cast off the shackles of governmental domination and celebrate the desire to feel, it seems locked in a cynical "for now" attitude. You half expect the final credits to roll with the cryptic "The End?" fleeting across the screen. And that's because, of all the intolerant views of the future that exist in the pantheon of motion pictures, Equilibrium is one of the most underhanded. It has a fascinating message to sell. Unfortunately, the only way it can do so is by undermining the principles it is desperate to protect. It's a potentially great movie hampered by a weak script and a rote view of human nature. And if that's not a depressing enough portrait of the future for you, perhaps the human Eveready racks of a computer-generated reality are just the ticket for the generations to come. We probably don't deserve any better.
Equilibrium is found guilty of exposing ideas it is too weak to explore fully. It is sentenced to five (5) years in cinematic state prison for being a derivative science fiction fantasy. The sentence is suspended however as the creation of the enigmatic weapons battle dance, gun katta, makes the movie a see at least once exercise in speculative movie making.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
• Feature Commentary with Director Kurt Wimmer
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