Equilibrium (Dimension Films, 2002)

In its advertisements, this film seemed so derivative of others that I didn't see it in the movie theater despite a cast including Christian Bale, Sean Bean and Taye Diggs -- three actors I could watch in the worst movie ever just to admire their magnificent manly attributes. Having seen the DVD three times now, I must admit that Equilibrium borrows much of its storyline from 1984, Brave New World and Brazil, with visuals that look like The Matrix crossed with Blade Runner among others. Fans of Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, Ayn Rand's Anthem, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, even Rush's rock opera 2112 will find familiar material throughout Equilibrium.

That said, this is one of the most underrated movies of the past several years. It's the story of a man's discovery of his humanity in a culture where emotion has been outlawed, where art and literature are burned as seditious material and where the only mythology is provided by a totalitarian government. The film is set following a future third world war which nearly destroys all life on the planet. In its aftermath, the nation of Libria rises, founded on the fantasy of all citizens as children of a beneficent ruling Father. The people of Libria are protected from their baser instincts by the drug Prozium, which numbs strong emotions -- thus preventing the rages, jealousies and hatreds that triggered the deadly wars. Aggressive impulses are defused with martial arts and massive social gatherings at which old films of Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein are broadcast to remind everyone of their salvation from such horrors.

Because not even regular doses of a Prozac-inspired emotion-quashing drug can eradicate all human feeling, Libria also has an elite monastic force known as the Tetragrammaton, which trains its Clerics to seek out and eradicate "sense offenders": people who flagrantly enjoy art, music and passion or who simply stop taking their doses of Prozium in order to experience the limited emotional and sensual pleasures of Librian society. Viviana Preston, the spouse of protagonist John Preston, was incinerated for such an offense. At the start of the film, Preston (Bale) -- the highest-ranking cleric of the Tetragrammaton -- discovers that his partner Partridge (Bean) is an offender as well, a state-trained killer who sneaks away at night to read Yeats. Goaded into executing Partridge, Preston finds his dreams haunted by both his late partner and his late wife. Then a series of accidents conspire to prevent him from taking his interval of Prozium, and his emotions begin to awaken.

The remainder of this wrenching storyline focuses on Preston's evolution from automaton to man, which occurs even as he is trying to solidify his position as the Tetragrammaton's most valuable cleric. Preston's ambitious new partner, Brandt (Diggs), wants to speed up the destruction of the Nethers, the outskirts of Librian society where sense offenders and political radicals hide to plot Father's overthrow. Vice-Consul Dupont is determined to wipe out the Underground and sets Preston on the trail of its leaders at precisely the moment that Preston develops his own reasons for wanting to meet the rebels who oppose Libria's leaders.

Brandt becomes suspicious of Preston after a raid on the secret hideaway of sense offender Mary O'Brien (Emily Watson), whose life Preston spares ostensibly to interrogate her about the Underground. But Preston becomes obsessed with her, and the discovery of an unexpected connection between her and Partridge sets him on a dangerous course. Preston begins to turn himself into his dead partner -- using Partridge's excuses for stealing contraband books from raids, meeting with Partridge's friends from the Underground, falling for Partridge's lover. Forced to make a choice about confronting the system, he asks himself what Partridge would do -- accept Prozium as a necessary exchange for peace, or risk the deadly excesses of violent emotion? "A heavy cost," Preston concludes of the price of emotion, quoting his onetime partner. "I pay it gladly."

What follows isn't any sort of neat conclusion, but this isn't really a utopian movie. It's first and foremost an action film with some fabulous fight sequences based around the Librian form of kata -- a combat technique which enables Clerics to dodge bullets, disarm multiple opponents and fight with swords, staffs and firearms, based on a combination of ancient martial arts and ultra-modern computer simulations of ammunition dispersal and human reaction times. Unlike the fighting in The Matrix, the combat in Equilibrium doesn't involve suspending time or stopping bullets in mid-air, so the effects-free sequences are rather breathtaking, even if the bloody fight scenes seem ironically to bolster the Librian claim that maybe it's better for audiences not to experience so much adrenaline-triggering entertainment.

Indeed, it's hard to pull any simple message from Equilibrium except that human will is stronger than any autocracy. Unlike the menacing Big Brother of 1984, Libria's Father speaks like a schoolteacher and appeals to his citizens' passive logic. Preston's young son interrupts a broadcast to ask his own father whether he should report a classmate for crying, and Preston says, "Unquestionably," certain this will be best for the classmate as well as for his child. It is never explained why the nuclear family has remained intact in a society determined to break emotional ties between its members, though this adds the creepy element of children spying on their parents and vice versa. Preston, who's considered an expert at sniffing out illicit emotion in suspected sense offenders, never understands why he didn't distrust his own wife. When he catches Partridge red-handed with stolen literature, Partridge claims that Preston always knew about him. Emotion hasn't been wiped out, just rechanneled and redefined in the service of the state. Still, as a resistance leader tells Preston, it's as dangerous as ever when out of control. A world without Father isn't going to contain any idyllic Zion.

There are some flawed elements in Equilibrium's production. Anyone who knows anything about art will realize that the painting burned in the opening sequence can't possibly be the real Mona Lisa despite an evidentiary team's claim that it is. There are indications that the Underground has infiltrated Librian society so deeply that one wonders why they would need Preston in the first place. The speeches by Libria's leaders are so dreadfully cliché-ridden that one believes the population must be drugged to put up with such drivel. And the story begins to unravel at the end, when it seems that someone must have set up Preston using Partridge in a convoluted plot that made me wonder why the Tetragrammaton didn't simply use Partridge to lead them to the Underground in the first place.

But in the end, the plot isn't as important as Preston's evolution, enhanced by Bale's subtle performance playing a man who has no experience with emotions. On the morning when Preston first awakens drug-free, in a room with white walls, a white ceiling and white coverings on the windows, he looks out and beholds a rainbow over the city, then races to take his interval before coming to the slow realization that he doesn't really want to. In the course of a few seconds, Bale must portray wonder, terror, shock, resentment, resistance, sorrow, excitement...all with the smallest of facial expressions and all while conveying the sense of newness that would be experienced by a man who never felt such things before. It's a stunner of a scene, and makes the character sympathetic though the audience has already seen him commit atrocities and will see him commit more as the film progresses.

The whole film is visually stylish from the grand to the small details, not just the nifty weapons but the uniforms of citizens and cops. The giant monochromatic viewscreens and broadcast blimps floating over the city seem creepily reminiscent of mind-numbing concert broadcasts. Much of the score for this this film is choral, and there's also a sequence in which Preston discovers the power of music while listening to an illegal recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The choreography and action sequences are sharp and smooth, not dragging on, not showing too much brutality except when necessary to make a point about the brutality of a state that bans emotion.

As one who is unconvinced that the metaphysics of The Matrix will ultimately make any more sense than the conspiracies of The X-Files, I found Equilibrium quite a compelling contribution to the dystopian genre. It doesn't offer any great innovations, but it dramatizes the struggle of man versus state with emotion and panache.

 

[Michelle Erica Green]