Feb 25, 2019
[Note from the editor: This review is by prospective staff writer Joe A. Enjoy!]
Equilibrium (2002) opens with a voiceover informing us that World War III took place in “the early years of the 21st Century”. In the post-apocalyptic aftermath, the totalitarian state of Libria was established. The Tetragrammaton Council is the governing body of Libria, and they’ve decided that extreme human emotions are the root of all wars and all of humanity’s problems. As such, citizens are expected to “dose” multiple times per day, injecting a medication called “Prozium” designed to deaden extreme emotive experiences, AKA feelings.
To feel is a crime in Libria; anything with aesthetic or emotional value is outlawed, and justice is swift and merciless. But there are holdouts, armed rebels who refuse to relinquish their humanity to the new order of the state. The Grammaton clerics are the Council’s highly trained law enforcement agents, and John Preston (Christian Bale) is a Grammaton cleric first class, the elite of the elite in the fight against feelings.
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The opening scene shows some of these rebels hiding out and enjoying music and various paintings. They get raided by the police, and a gun battle ensues and the police have difficulty trying to overcome the criminals. That’s when John Preston and his partner (Sean Bean) enter the building as cool as surgeons. At John’s request, the police kill the lights in the building, and after a long, long shot of a black screen, John kills the rest of the holdouts in a series of near-mechanical movements with his firearms.
After a sequence where the police torch the Mona Lisa, they return to headquarters. On the way there, John discovers that his partner has kept a piece of key evidence: a book of poetry by Yeats. John ends up executing him for the crime of feeling his own emotions.
Later, he arrests a rebel named Mary (Emily Watson) who later turns out to have been his partner’s lover. That’s when things begin to turn for John. He stops taking his Prozium doses, and as his feelings become more profound, it becomes harder to conceal them from his fellow clerics.
John gets a new partner named Brandt (Taye Diggs). Together, they raid a “feeler” stronghold, and discover that the rebels were keeping a kennel of dogs. In a rather out-of-place lighthearted moment, John manages to smuggle out one of the puppies before they’re all killed. When he goes to the outskirts of town to set the puppy free, he’s found by the police, and ends up having to kill all the officers to hide his secret.
Mary is then sentenced to death and incinerated alive in a cremation chamber, which brings back John’s memories of how he witnessed the incineration of his own wife, who had been arrested for being a “sense offender” (get it?). While in his chemically sedated state, he faced it with stoicism in an official capacity. But now, John begins to have so many feelings that he decides to get in touch with the resistance and operate as a double-agent for them.
John meets the rebel leader Jurgen (William Fichtner), his antithetical polar opposite, and together they devise a plan to defeat the Tetragrammaton: They’re going to kill “The Father”, the Big Brother-like leader who appears on video screens all over the world.
Many critics chided Equilibrium for borrowing too heavily from George Orwell. But there’s nothing inherently wrong in reusing certain themes in literature and movies. After all, the concept of a pervasive government intruding into the lives of individuals predates Orwell, who was actually inspired by many facets of life in the Soviet Union at the time. So to say the film is bad because it echoes Orwell is to say it’s bad because it reflects actual history.
In the film, the Grammaton clerics have developed a style of firearm martial arts based upon statistical likelihood of projectile trajectories, dubbed “Gun Kata” by director Kurt Wimmer (who may or may not have reused the concept in Ultraviolet). The idea is certainly intriguing. It almost seems like it might work, if not exactly as flawlessly as in the movie.
My favorite scene is when John is busting out of the inner sanctum of the Father. He rounds a corner slightly to slide a couple of full clips across the floor that stop in front of two guards. He performs a series of Grammaton moves that end smack dab where he slid the clips, reloads with one fluid move, and finishes them off.
Although, I doubt the kind of athletic skill we see on the part of the clerics could be accomplished without feeling or emotion. And as one critic noted, the clerics often exhibit quite strong feelings of anger, which does somewhat undercut the movie’s premise.
Despite the terrible reviews it got upon release, Equilibrium has become a cult favorite, and for good reason. It boasts high energy combat scenes as well as a much deeper literary meaning. Admist all the action is a statement against the dangers of a society structured around “law by the letter”, as John says, instead of by its spirit. And it’s this letter-of-the-law thinking that leads to unquestioned allegiance to the state, better known as fascism.
If you dismissed it as a mindless action picture when it came out, or as just another copy of The Matrix, it’s worth taking another look at Equilibrium; you may find that it has plenty of ideas and a lot of things to say.