Equilibrium

Pilfered though it is from many superior (and not-so-superior) sources, Equilibrium has a lot more to offer than you’d expect. Dimension Films (the genre branch of Miramax) sat on it for over a year before finally dumping it into a paltry 301 screens in a December death slot against the big year-end films (i.e., The Two Towers and its like). It didn’t even get a chance to make back its relatively low $20 million budget — it grossed just over $1 million before disappearing from theaters in three weeks. The movie deserves far better. Equilibrium is not the most original movie to come down the pike — it’s indebted to your choice of dystopian science fiction (1984, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, The Matrix, Gattaca) — but it’s a sleek and forceful film of its kind, with some of the most eye-boggling gunfight scenes in recent memory. They’re not even gunfights — they’re more like systematic gun massacres, begun and finished in an eyeblink, with shooter and targets close enough to kiss.

John Preston (Christian Bale), a “Grammaton Cleric” (i.e., assassin for the government), does far more shooting than kissing. John is one of the black-clad enforcers of the new world order: in the post-WWIII fascist state of Libria, it has been determined that war and violence can be blamed solely on emotion, so all emotions have been outlawed. Scruffy bands of resistance fighters, who have refused to take their daily dose of the emotion-killing drug Prozium, gather together to appreciate art, music, film — contraband works of beauty (which are illegal because they inspire feeling). John is a complete moral and emotional blank, which means he’s the best at his job, and his two children, raised (like him) on a steady diet of Prozium, are likewise empty. John was married once, but his wife became a “sense offender,” rebelling against the emotionless world, and was summarily executed while John stood nearby, not bothered in the slightest.

Such a man could never carry a movie if there weren’t a change of heart — or, in John’s case, an introduction of heart — in store for him. Christian Bale plays the early scenes almost as a sequel to his dead-zone Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, as if Bateman had finally found his niche as a callous destroyer in the bleak world of Libria and was handed a badge and a gun. But little by little, emotion invades his shell. His partner Partridge (Sean Bean) succumbs to the poetry of Yeats; John neutrally pulls Partridge’s plug, but with the tiniest flicker of doubt (“I’ll do what I can to see that they go easy on you,” he says, an odd sentiment for someone supposedly without sentiment). Later, John drops one of his Prozium capsules, but instead of getting a replacement, he begins to have feelings. Some viewers may complain that John, conveniently for the plot, has an emotionally tough day ahead of him the same morning he goes Prozium-free; but he may have had many days just like it while cushioned from the emotional drain.

Writer-director Kurt Wimmer gives us the same future-noir premise that served Steven Spielberg well in Minority Report — in both, a seasoned and skilled cog in the machine is content to work unquestioningly within the system, until the system turns on him. With a dash of wit, Wimmer even gives John a cute puppy to contend with, not to mention Emily Watson (in what amounts to an extended cameo) as Mary, a “sense offender” whose Beethoven record touches John’s underused soul, just like Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Fortunately, there’s no strained romance in the works for John and Mary, just the smallest tremors of suppressed attraction (mostly his for her), and in any event her character serves chiefly as the doorway to the larger resistance movement, led by William Fichtner as a man who can feel, but has chosen not to allow himself to.

Lots of ideas bounce around in this paranoid fantasy, and lots of implausibilities, too. (Wouldn’t John and his fellow Clerics be subjected to regular blood or urine tests to be sure they’re on their Prozium? Wouldn’t there be a more high-tech way of sniffing out emotion than a polygraph test, which can be faked out?) But Equilibrium is still an engaging ride, with some quicksilver moves in store for the climax, including a swordfight between John and suspicious new partner Taye Diggs, and a swirling ballet of gunplay between John and Libria higher-up Angus MacFadyen. Many praised The Matrix for combining deep-dish philosophy and kick-ass anime style, but it’s the underseen Equilibrium that really delivers the goods.

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