on March 6, 2004
I can understand the urge to compare "Equilibrium" and "The Matrix". Both films feature dark, foreboding cinematography. Both films are about rebellion against a warped reality. Both films feature a reluctant, messianic protagonist. And, finally, both films rely heavily on stylistic, hyper-kinetic combat scenes that can only be described as, well, reverent. That is where the similarity ends because while "Equilibrium" has a few moments of slow-motion it's action scenes are much more original than those of "The Matrix Trilogy". No Wires, just pure crazy choreography which makes the action feel all the more authentic. The environment is also a great deal more organic in contrast to the cryptic automaton of the Matrix.
"Equilibrium", in short, manages to be entirely its own movie. Where The Matrix relies on "bending" the rules of physics in an imaginary construct of a world, "Equilibrium" goes the other way and hypothesizes the "Gun-Kata", a martial arts ballet that allows it's practitioners to predict and anticipate close quarters gun fighting and hand to hand combat. Then, through a series of precise, dance like movements, a person 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. The film features some of the best choreographed shootouts I have ever seen, and ends up putting anything in The Matrix Trilogy to shame.
"Equilibrium" is a film that explores what it theorizes to be the root of all worldly chaos, human emotion. The movie takes place in the near future after a third world war that leaves Earth on the verge of total destruction. From the ashes arises a government that regulates everything and everyone through mind control. The drug Prozium is hailed as the elixir to the world's problems because it suppresses human emotion and thus eliminates the possibility war. All art, music, poetry and any emotion are considered contraband and must be destroyed upon discovery.
The primary clash is between individualism and collectivism -- the notion that each person is an end to him or herself and pursues his or her own happiness, and the theory that the individual exists only to further the interests of the state. In "Equilibrium", the side of "feelings" (the side that promotes painting, music, and literature) is the side of the sovereign individual.
The film clearly suggests that emotions -- the ability to "feel" -- are what make life worth living; yet they are also the source of violence and war. At some level, this is clearly true. The joy of art, the intensity of romantic love, the pleasures of a touch or the sight of a sunrise, the fascination of a great idea -- these are the things we live for. "Crimes of passion" such as murder, domestic violence, and assault generally involve uncontrolled emotions.
In "Equilibrium", murder and war among the civilian population have been wiped out. Of course, they have been replaced by state-sponsored murder and terror. Thus, the film points out the real purpose of deadening people's emotions is to perpetuate state oppression.
This nightmare is presided over by the Big Brother-like dictator Father, and enforced by a quasi-religious order of "Clericks," whose incredible combat skills are unleashed on "sense offenders" who have gone off the drugs that keep the populace docile.
John Preston (Christian Bale) is the perfect Grammaton Clerick (the government is known as the Tetragrammaton). He kills "sense offenders" without passion or guilt ... until he inadvertently fails to take his prescribed tranquilizer dose and events begin to catch up with him. Little by little, he finds himself drawn into "sense crime" and then into the resistance. I hesitate to reveal much more about the plot of "Equilibrium", jammed as it is with surprise and invention -- suffice to say, this is an intellectual rollercoaster ride, as cerebral as it is visceral; both a bleak glimpse into a possible future and a stirring tribute to the indomitable human spirit.
The creators of "Equilibrium" had to take some liberties with the very idea of emotion, of course. The drug really only eliminates the "highs" and "lows," leaving enough emotive strength for the characters to retain ambition and a visceral hatred of their enemies. Plot means conflict and human conflict is impossible without emotion.
The acting is excellent, and if you like Christian Bale as much as I do, he shines above all else. Bale is truly exceptional in bringing a real sense of emotional conflict to the character of Preston, and as the film moves on he gradually brings that emotion to the forefront. At the start of the film, and in it's many flashbacks, Preston is supposed to be this emotionless killer that doesn't realize he's actually feeling subtle emotions. Bale's performance keeps the perfect monotone voice of an emotionless character, but in his eyes shows the doubt, remorse and anger. Then as the films moves on he gradually starts changing his tone of voice, allowing the monotone to falter in key moments, until in the end he completely releases all of his emotions.
As you can tell, Equilibrium's plot draws from a rich variety of sources. There's a lot of Orwell's "1984" and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World".
True, there are a few minor plot problems, but any movie that treats ideas and symbols seriously these days is a find, and one that pulls off a serious treatment of life's most fundamental questions in the context of a gripping story is a rare jewel.
"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.
The creation of the enigmatic weapons battle dance, "Gun-Kata", makes the movie a see at least once exercise in speculative movie making.