As is customary in dystopian cinema, it is hard to figure out what Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium (2002) is in favour of as opposed to what it condemns. Starring Christian Bale as John Preston (most likely no relation to Sex and the City’s Mr Big, but you never know), Equilibrium tells the tale of a future where ‘Sense Crime’ – the crime of feeling – is a capital offence. In an effort to suppress the human compulsions that lead to crime and violence or perhaps the toppling of dictatorships, citizens of Libria are dosed with designer drug ‘Prozium’. Art, literature, music and film are prohibited along with anything else that might inspire, or be expressive of, feeling. If you miss a dose, read a book, or experience and betray a single emotion – then you face death. Nevertheless when Preston accidentally misses a dose he begins to experience a whole new world of individuality and sensation that may be worth the risk.
It’s not subtle. The government is ridiculously sinister, the flag basically a giant Nazi flag from a universe where the Nazis were much bigger Take That fans, and as a criticism of Prozac-type medication it is slightly offensive. Really, if you are in need of Prozac its most likely making your life a whole lot better and not being used as a method of governmental control, but hey ho. Regardless, Equilibrium offers an interesting look at how a self-sustaining emotionless society would be a frighteningly difficult cycle to break. Without love or hate, anger or desire, without grief or the promise of happiness, what does humanity stand and fight for? Can it truly unite if no one shares a single bond?
Equilibrium is an eccentric film, simultaneously – and in equal measure – heavy-handed nerd-fodder and a powerful statement about the role of emotion in humanity’s evolution. Unfortunately, following early profit from international pre-release sales, Miramax cut the ad campaign as well as theatrical release in the U.S. where its political concerns might have been most recognisable. Despite initial profit the film was lucky to make any national impact at all, playing in just 301 United States cinemas at its widest release. Fortunately for Wimmer, the presence of Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Emily Watson and Taye Diggs, a well-developed world, and a slightly unnerving cult excitement around the Gun Kata style (just YouTube it. Or don’t. It’s a scary world out there… ) established a place for the Librian vision in popular culture.
The city-state of Libria comes across as a giant fortress rather than an organic city, a monotone machine filled with identically dressed automatons. It makes total sense that most filming took place in Berlin considering the bizarre balance (or equilibrium, teehee) struck between the influence of outmoded fascism and contemporary innovation within the city. The resultant tension contributes to the rigid style that characterises the design of cars, costumes and even fight sequences throughout the film. Perhaps the major legacy of Equilibrium is “Gun Kata”, a fighting style conceived by writer/director Kurt Wimmer who on the DVD commentary describes devising the style in his backyard. It is actually not hard to see why Gun Kata made an impression; budgetary and time restrictions meant that most of the fight scenes had to be filmed in one take, occasioning a palpable sense of raw exhilaration.
Wimmer relied on the actors and stunt coordinators to deliver the impressively complex movements instead of applying digital effects. There is no fancy or overly kinetic camera work and no slo-mo which breaks from a well-worn convention following The Matrix‘s mammoth mark on action cinema in 1999. The combination of overly smooth movements and severely stiff poses yields a wonderful clash of styles, a reflection of the internal devotion to logic and ruthlessness that allows clerics like Preston to commit terrible acts of slaughter in the name of peace.
In terms of how Equilibrium stands as a warning for the present generation, Wimmer was reportedly more interested in making Libria a kind of alternate reality. To this end he avoids sci-fi tech, which might come to look outdated, and resists any temptation to give the film a date at all, simply setting it after a Third World War wherein nuclear weapons and the subsequent fallout wiped out almost the entirety of earth’s population. Equilibrium is not a fan of socialism but it is also not a fan of idolatry nor right-wing methods of maintaining a dictatorship. To be honest, Equilibrium isn’t a fan of much. Instead Preston is a member of the police-cum-warrior monks known as ‘clerics’ and the system is controlled by the mystical dictator ‘Father’ (religion and paternity both get a bashing here). Wimmer based the clerics’ attitude to emotion mainly on Samurai orders, concurrently criticising and revering the ability to fight with total physical and emotional control. Most belief systems come under the questioning spotlight at some point, although it revels in the United States’ traditional abhorrence of Communism with a certain relentless and rather misguided delight that arguably has not really been seen since the McCarthy trials.
This movie certainly has much to say about the significance of our emotions, firmly sure that the bonds of love and emotion are key to improvement as much as survival. Affection and feeling are vital to the concept of triumphing over dictatorial control and become the triggers and tools with which we disrupt systems of power; it is through these bonds that people make leaps and break rules. Where people are willing to make sacrifices they are able to act unpredictably and seemingly irrationally as goals shift from survival to protection, an aim built upon the aspiration to ensure the events they set in motion and the world they leave behind will safeguard a good life for the object of their love. It’s a beautiful and powerful thing.
Awkwardly, it all rather hinges on the principle that there is still an inherent selfishness at play, that in order to do anything of worth or to be an individual, someone must only think to advance themselves or their loved ones. Perhaps the resolution is ambiguous and there has to be a little selfish detachment, and a little social awareness, in all we do. After all, love is a combination of total involvement and being outside of that other person, to live beside rather than in place of. All in all, Equilibrium is a film that should be much more tedious than it is (though it occasionally teeters on the edge). Nevertheless it is an interesting vision that has become essential dystopian watching even if only for the moment where Christian Bale almost cries over the cutest puppy ever to appear on film.
Oh, and Sean Bean totally makes it to the end of the movie. Promise.