Promotional material for Equilibrium, be it movie posters or the DVD case, seems to frequently feature quotes from reviewers comparing it favorably to The Matrix. It’s an apt comparison, as anybody who has seen both films will recognize certainly similarities. Like The Matrix, Equilibrium is a science-fiction film set in a subtle dystopia. Like The Matrix, it’s a film that relies heavily on action and style, a style which indeed bears a more-than-passing resemblance to its predecessor (one wonders if the Wachowskis told director Kurt Wimmer where to shop). Like The Matrix, it features a large dose of philosophy and thinks it’s a lot smarter than it actually is. And like The Matrix, this pseudo-intellectualism doesn’t actually hurt it much.
Equilibrium is set after mankind has recovered from the third world war, in the city-state of Libria. The ruling government of Libria (we never see any hints of whether the rest of the world still exists) have decided that all war and conflict have their roots in jealousy, greed, and anger. To curb global and domestic violence, they have decided to eliminate the problem at its source: human emotion. The people of Libria are dosed daily with a drug that inhibits their emotional reactions. Anything which can provoke a strong emotional reaction — such as art, poetry, and music — is banned. Special agents called Grammaton Clerics are sent out to the fringes of the city to eliminate any uprisings and resistance that try to preserve these cultural items.
The successful elimination of violence.
Christian Bale plays John Preston, one of the most high-ranking Grammaton Clerics. Bale starts off the film playing the stoic badass type that he would become better known for after Batman Begins three years later. Later, as Preston inevitably starts to get drawn away from the daily drug doses — I don’t think it constitutes a spoiler to mention this, as it’s the plot that is demanded by the setting — Bale gets to show a greater range of emotion. As Preston is experiencing these emotions for the first time, Bale is able to use these scenes to great effect, with some emotional reactions being questioning and unsure, and others overwhelming him in their intensity.
Bale also gets the opportunity to show off his action skills (again, as he would become known for with the Batman films). The Clerics practice a technique called “Gun Kata”, in which rapid choreographed movements allow them to dodge predicted attacks while taking on their opponents with maximum efficiency. It’s far from realistic, but it’s extremely entertaining to watch, and I’m fully on the side of going for entertainment over reality when it comes to action films, at least on matters such as this.
He knows gun fu.
Bale is surrounded by a handful of supporting characters, and the actors in those roles have an interesting challenge in that their characters are mostly supposed to be emotionless, or to have only limited emotions. Emily Watson, playing one of the resistance, is an exception and gets a few quietly emotional scenes. Perhaps the best supporting role is Matthew Harbour (then 12 years old) as Preston’s son; he plays the emotionless creepy child with an uncanny skill. There’s an element to the narrative that makes it difficult for the older actors to play their characters in a way that is both accurate to the story as a whole and not cause the audience to lose their suspension of disbelief. This isn’t the fault of the actors, or really even writer/director Wimmer; it’s just a consequence of a tricky premise to pull off in a standard action movie. It does hold the film back a bit, but my advice to the viewer is that when one sees an emotional slip-up to just roll with it.
Equilibrium is a film that seems to have flown under the radar, and is likely to continue to do so. But it presents an interesting and unusual vision of the future, one envisioned earlier by THX-1138, but portrayed here in a more energetic and entertaining fashion. The philosophical points may not be particularly strong — there’s a sense of redundancy in reminding a film audience of the importance of emotions — but they bolster the film from being just another action film. If Equilibrium stumbles across your path, it’s worth picking it up for a look.