Equilibrium

“Is it worth the heavy price?”
“I pay it gladly.”

Equilibrium is a 2002 sci-fi action film set in a dystopian future, starring Christian Bale as John Preston, the protagonist. This movie is a bit of a sleeper, in that it’s not well-known, but still generally very well-received among audiences. It’s true that movies like this have been done before, but there’s something fun and extremely watchable about this movie, regardless.

Equilibrium is set sometime in the 21st century, after a third World War. The government and society as a whole have decided that humans’ volatile natures must be repressed to avoid more war and so they invent a drug called Prozium that suppresses all emotions. All members of society carry around it in vials and take at regular intervals, with an injection straight into their veins. This new society, Libria, has also elected to burn anything that would compel someone to feel emotion, including paintings, literature and musical records. There’s also a new arm of the law, the Grammaton Cleric, established to enforce all this and make sure no one is experiencing emotion. Pre-recorded lessons about the horror of past wars are broadcast on mega TVs everywhere. Everyone wears dark, neutral colors, promoting conformity. Sound familiar?

That’s because it is. The script borrows heavily from literature such as 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451 and The Giver. There’s not much original about this movie, but truth be told, it’s hard to find originality in the dystopian genre. The shelves of YA dystopian novels in any bookstore are stocked with books just like this, and for the most part many of them are interchangeable if a few details are tweaked. But they’re all bestsellers. This genre sells, no matter how many times its been done. Perhaps that’s because what this genre lacks in originality, it makes up for in entertainment and escapism. In several years, books will still be written and movies will still be made, with premises exactly like this one, and people will still watch, read and enjoy them.

What is it about this movie that works? Maybe it’s the casting of Christian Bale, Taye Diggs and Sean Bean, all marvelous actors. Maybe it’s the amazingly choreographed action scenes. Maybe it’s how well this film executed scenes of Christian Bale discovering emotion- maybe it’s all of it. But whatever it is, this movie, despite its flaws, shines.

Christian Bale plays the movie’s protagonist, Tetragrammaton John Preston, highest order of the Cleric, those designated to identify and apprehend “sense offenders”- or those who feel emotion. He’s the best at what he does, revered by his colleagues, praised by the government, feared by the resistance. Sean Bean plays his partner, Partridge, and Taye Diggs’ his understudy, Brandt.

The Grammaton themselves are trained in a martial art called “gun kata” which is described as “creating a maximum kill zone with maximum damage while defending the shooter from the traditional trajectories of bullets.” In other words, shootouts are now a martial arts dance. It may sound a little silly, but it actually looks pretty damn cool, especially with Bale at the helm, who, as we’ve seen from the later Batman movies- throws himself into his action scenes.

Over the course of the film, due to unforeseen circumstances, Preston misses one of his intervals and starts experiencing emotion, the very thing he’s worked so hard to destroy. The film handles it skillfully and beautifully, while still managing to maintain an air of suspense, keeping the audience guessing as to whether he will remain a Cleric or flip over to the Resistance.

I think part of the reason this movie is so well-liked is that it has something in it for everyone- constant kick-ass fight sequences, sci-fi elements, political commentary, and plenty of emotion. Equilibrium manages to interweave all of these threads to create a movie that’s vastly enjoyable, even to different demographics.

Not to say the movie isn’t flawed, because it is. Critics generally didn’t like it and I understand their reasoning. It’s a recycled plot, it’s a bit cliche and even campy in parts- but in my opinion, the strengths outweighs the flaws to make a pretty strong film.

With that being said, the first two to three minutes are pretty cringe-worthy and make it seem, falsely, like it’s going to be an awful movie. Just hang in there until Christian Bale appears on screen. (You won’t have to wait long.)

The rest of this review contains heavy spoilers, so don't read past this kitten if you don't want to be spoiled.

I’m going to say again the rest of this review contains major spoilers so if you don’t want to be spoiled, exit stage right.

...

Still with me? Okay.

I loved the action scenes and fighting stances in this movie, and honestly, most everyone I know who has seen this movie, does as well. Once you get past the initial gunfight, which I do admit, is pretty weak, the rest of the film soars with Christian Bale kicking ass like only Christian Bale can do, with a unique and visually pleasing new fighting style. Gun kata may or may not work, but it sure translates well on screen.

I also thought the way they handled emotions, and particular things that evoke emotion, was very poignant. That scene of Preston tearing his window screen off to stare at the sunrise was spectacular. And we got many scenes like that; the snow globe shattering on the floor as he hears Beethoven’s 9th symphony for the first time, taking his glove off to feel the scars of the bullet-holes in the plaster. Things we take for granted in our own lives till we see movies like this. The scene where Preston catches the dying rebel and looks into his eyes, then stares at the blood on his hands, truly seeing it for the first time, was particularly effective. Not only is he feeling emotion for the first time, he’s realizing what exactly he is, and what he does.

Which leads into the parallel of Partridge and Preston; in the beginning of the movie Partridge steals a W.B. Yeats book and Preston notices immediately. Partridge covers with a somewhat sloppy excuse of dropping it off himself to be condemned. When Preston realizes Partridge is a sense offender, he kills him with no hesitation or remorse. He apologizes beforehand but Partridge remarks, justifiably, that it’s an empty apology. Fast forward an hour into the movie, Preston is doing exactly what Partridge did, stealing condemned books and even saying the exact same line to a suspicious Brandt that Partridge said to him. I thought it was a lovely parallel that later Preston was able to say “I’m sorry” to Partridge, and mean it. (Even if he was already dead.) Although I really wish Sean Bean had been in the movie more.

Taye Diggs also did fabulous in his role of Brandt, eager new protege turned traitor. Continuing the parallels, if Preston slowly became Partridge, Brandt became who Preston was in the beginning of the movie. He made good on his threat of “being as uncompromising as you.” We can’t really hate him without hating the initial character of Preston as well. I really loved their katana duel as Brandt is trying to bait Preston into revealing that he’s the sense offender.

As far as the Resistance goes, they could have done worse. William Fichter only had a few scenes as Jurgen but he did a magnificent job, as he usually does. The plan to cut off the Prozium supply made sense to me even if it did wrap up the plot a tad too neatly. As far as the Father, faith and Cleric mess went, referencing overused allegories to power mad religious radicals, I ignored all that. It wasn’t hard to. A bit too heavy-handed and cliched, if you ask me. Exploration of the place of religion in society is too exhaustive a topic to have as a wayward thread in a movie like this, in my opinion.  Although of course, religion and government should ALWAYS be kept separate, obviously. The Handmaid's Tale explores this topic much more skillfully and realistically.

I had two quibbles; the first being, I would have loved to have seen a little more time given to the discovery of love, especially since they mentioned the word so often. (I know, I’m such a girl.) But even still. A scene or two couldn’t have hurt. The character of Mary O’Brien certainly initiates Preston’s introduction into lust, with her unkempt hair, her soft nightgowns and her vial of perfume. And him carrying her ribbon around was a nice touch. But the people he really loved was his wife and children- made so much clearer by the fact that he was drawn to Mary because she reminded him of Viviana, his dead wife, who was executed for sense offense four years earlier with nary a peep from Preston. So much of his relationship with Mary was trying to rectify the wrong of letting his wife die- he even watched the video of Viviana going to her execution before he rushed to stop Mary’s. I was a bit surprised he didn’t make it to Mary in time. It was good of him to do her the respect of not looking away.

I think what I was really missing was a longer scene of him connecting with his children- they are his children after all. Even a little hug would have been nice. His son and daughter were so dang cute. It was such a shock, but so sweet, that his son had been feeling since their mom died and he would periodically check in on his dad to see if he was feeling yet too. And then he covered for him by hiding his excess Prozium. I loved when Preston asked if his daughter was feeling as well and his son replied with, “Of course.” Of course she was. Wish she and her cereal spoon had been in the movie more. Though of course, when Preston helped with the revolution, it’s implied he did it as much for his children as anyone else.

My major quibble is with the end shot; literally the last two seconds when the rebels are overthrowing the government and Preston is looking down on the scene of the Equilibrium buildings exploding. I think this scene was meant to be triumphant but it looked more ironic. Preston looked like the next Father, smiling in the wake of that mass destruction and I’d bet my money on that’s not what the director was going for. But violence always begets more violence. Certainly the government can’t suppress emotions, and certainly that would call for an uprising, but the movie started with slaughter and ended with slaughter. And they emphasized it, unknowingly or not. As Mary said, “It’s circular.”

Interesting details and tidbits:

“But I, being poor, have only my dreams. I have spread my dreams beneath your feet. Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams.” This was a quote from W.B. Yeats, a renowned author and poet. I love Yeats.

The "original" Mona Lisa they burned was WAY too big to be the actual Mona Lisa. You would have thought someone would have caught that.

Father was a sense offender. Of course he was. Cue rolling of eyes.

Mary and Partridge were romantically involved. That scene where Preston confesses to killing him looked like he was trying to punish himself. Mary’s a pretty forgiving woman. Though I guess Preston wasn’t himself.

The dogs were defended by women and children. That got me. Brandt didn't know why they were kept and asked if they were kept as food. The puppy Preston saved was adorable. I’m glad the puppy ended up happily eating Preston’s daughter’s cereal.

I have no idea what book Preston took; we didn’t see the title, damn it. 1984 perhaps? :)

I’m glad they cleared up the plot line of why Preston wasn’t taken in earlier than he was. I mean, come on, he was saving puppies, stopping executions, killing several Cleric, and literally crying on his knees in the street. If the Grammaton had not let him go, he would have been apprehended a half hour into the movie.

The car interiors were a sterile white. Nice touch there.

I was literally waiting with baited breath when the officer heard the puppy yap in the trunk. Although I guess if he had just left it alone, we wouldn’t have had that bomb action sequence.

The government killed in the name of not killing. Typical.

I thought that it was poignant that when someone started experiencing emotion, they literally couldn’t hide it. Preston had apprehended Partridge for taking a condemned book but he couldn’t not do the same. It was almost physically impossible to watch the burning of beautiful paintings and books, and to sit at an uniform desk. It’s very realistic.

At about 57 minutes in, a dude is about to be executed and the acting is truly awful. It happens so fast you might miss it, but the expression on his face make it look like he’s literally about to be hit with a water balloon.

I liked how Preston begged the officer not to open his trunk; implying that he wasn’t comfortable with killing anymore, no matter who it was. But once he had to do it, he did it well.

The seemingly emotionless Brandt yelled a couple times. Hmmm. My husband Andrew said, “Seems to me you’re experiencing the emotion of anger, sir.” And I agree with him. Director’s fault?

For a watchful Big Brother-esque society, they were kinda lacking in surveillance weren’t they?

The society was called Libria- freedom. Right.

I loved how Jurgen pointed out the opposite end of the spectrum, that emotion is beautiful but there is truth in that uncontrolled emotion is dangerous. That will never not be true.

I’ve often wondered why this movie didn’t get more hype than it did. Truth be told, it still perplexes me.

Memorable quotes and moments:

Broadcast: “At the cost of the dizzying highs of human emotion, we have suppressed its abysmal lows.”

Preston: “I’m sorry.”
Partridge: “No you’re not. You don’t even know the meaning. It’s just a vestigial word for a feeling you’ve never felt.”

Preston: “There’s no war, no murder.”
Partridge: “What is it you think we do?”

Brandt: “I can only hope one day to be as... uncompromising as you.”

Mary: “Why are you alive?”
Preston: “I’m alive... I live to safeguard the continuity of this great society.”
Mary: “It’s circular. You exist to continue your existence. What’s the point?”

Mary: “I’m wondering if you have any idea at all what that word means- friend.”

Mary: “To feel... it’s as vital as breath. Without it, without love, breath is just a clock ticking.”

Brandt: “What are you doing?”
Preston: “I’m rearranging my desk.”
Brandt: “You didn’t like the way it was before?”
Preston: “I had no feelings about it. I was merely attempting to optimize.”

Preston: “Without the logic of process, is it not just mayhem- what we have worked so hard to eradicate?”

Preston: “Now go!”
Rebel: “Don’t do it, he’ll shoot you in the back.”
Preston: “If I was going to shoot you, I’d shoot you in the face.”
Well, when you put it like that...

Mary: “I’m a sense offender. I don’t hang around much with the Cleric.”
Except she did, didn’t she? Or at the very least, one Cleric. Well, I guess two, if you count Preston.

Jurgen: “Without control, emotion is chaos.”

Preston: “What about war, the everyday cruelties that are gone now?”
Jurgen: “Replaced with the touch of the Grammaton?”

Father: “Along with them, you’ve given me yourself. Calmly. Coolly. Entirely without incident.”
Preston: “No. Not without incident.”

I loved it, despite its glaring flaws.

Three out of four perfume soaked ribbons,
Valkyrie

Valkyrie is trained in Gun Kata but not taking her Prozium.

8 comments:

skyemaidstone said...

Really nice review.

I actually re-watched this recently myself and was pleasantly surprised. I remember thinking it was some naff Matrix rip-off with some silly religion.

I remembered it wrong apparently.

Bale does some amazing acting, as he usually does. Not really being a kid person the puppy always gets to me more than the children.

I also remembered how horrifying the furnace looked. Yep still horrifying.

Definitely a hidden gem which holds up pretty well.

Billie Doux said...

Valkyrie, a lovely review of a good movie that should indeed have gotten more attention. I remember being really affected by the puppy, of course. This one should go on my rewatch list.

Valkyrie30 said...

Skyemaidstone- I totally agree! This movie was a hidden gem with some great acting. The puppy definitely tugged at my heartstrings- and ugh. That furnace. No thank you lol

Billie, thank you!! :) I never could understand why this movie wasn’t bigger than it was. Still holds up almost twenty years later though!

Josie Kafka said...

I haven't even heard of this movie, but it sounds good!

Your taste in spoiler kittens is unparalleled.

sunbunny said...

Christian Bale scares me. He has murder face. I had a big crush on him when I was 7 and he was Laurie in Little Women but since then...murder face.

Honestly it took me forever to see Nolan’s bat-trilogy because I find him so offputting.

Billie Doux said...

LOL, sunbunny.

Your taste in spoiler kittens is unparalleled. That is high praise, Valkyrie. Josie Kafka is the original inventor of the spoiler kitten [patent pending].

Logan Cox said...

Was happy to read this, since I do think this is quite an underrated movie. I think it got overlooked because it came out just shortly after The Matrix, and there's some obvious correlations there. Still, it is a very well-made and entertaining movie that is worth a look.

Since, as you said, the plot is basically all of the 20th Century's best dystopian sci-fi novels rolled into one, I think it works well on multiple levels. Fans of those literary classics will be pleased to see how this movie pays tribute to them as influences. And those unfamiliar with the works might find a lot of those elements more novel, even as they are captivated by the obligatory post-Matrix stylized action.

You also pointed out something that struck me most about the film. Despite all the futuristic pageantry and gun-kata shenanigans, the most compelling part of the movie is Preston's self-discovery as he regains his ability to feel; Christian Bale does such an effective job at conveying this. As over the top as some it is (the dog rescue massacre is as laughable to me as it is awesome), it really nails the fact that so much of what makes us human is in our feelings and passions and free thoughts. Like The Matrix, Equilibrium manages to not only pay homage to the speculative fiction that inspired it, it does so in such a way that makes it just as sincere and worthy an example as its influences. At least, in my opinion.

Excellent review, Valkyrie.

Valkyrie30 said...

Josie, thank you!! That’s high praise! :) I had no idea you invented the spoiler kitten. It’s genius!

Sun bunny- LOL. I quite like Christian Bale but I can’t argue you have a point there haha

Logan- thank you so much! I had not even noticed the similarities to the Matrix, but of course, you’re right. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t a bigger film.

I couldn’t agree with you more about the discovery of emotion. :) I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff and I think they did it well in this one (and between some awesome gun fights!) lol