And we’re back! I tell ya, I’m mentally burnt from reviewing so many classics that I actually enjoyed! But I guess that’s to be expected. Somehow, its just easier to burn and mock bad movies, as opposed to dissecting and delving into movies with real themes, plots, memorable characters and complex messages. And I have covered a few movies in the last while that I had mostly good things to say about. So its about time I got back to bashing something worthy of it! Yeah, that seems about right. Here’s Equilibrium!
Now I already know that I’m stepping on some toes just by implying that this movie was fluff. As it turns out, Equilibrium is a cult-classic with its own dedicated fansite. That’s right, people actually came together and created a website strictly for fans of this 1984-ripoff. Go check it out, its actually pretty respectable: Equilibrium Fans
That shouldn’t come as a big surprise, people love an underdog after all! And considering the bashing it took and how little money it made, its little wonder why its fans would be so dedicated…
Yes, as already noted, this movie did very poorly at the box office, grossing just over five million dollars, which was roughly a quarter of the movie’s budget. And it was generally panned by critics, earning only 37 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a metascore of only 33 out of 100 on Metacritic. Little surprise. The general consensus amongst critics was that the movie was a rip-off, a “reheated mishmash of other sci-fi movies” as one review put it. Or, as the NY Times claimed, that it borrowed heavily from such classics as Fahrenheit 451, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and other science-fiction classics. Roger Ebert was the only one to be gentle, giving the film 3 out of 4 stars and saying that “Equilibrium would be a mindless action picture, except that it has a mind. It doesn’t do a lot of deep thinking, but unlike many futuristic combos of sf and f/x, it does make a statement”.
On the other hand, the movie did manage to attract a cult following that saw all this “borrowing” as signs of quality, who enjoyed the combination of action and sci-fi/satirical elements. But regardless of whether it was seen as a weakness or a sign of quality, the fact remains: Equilibrium borrowed HEAVILY from many sci-fi classics, particularly 1984, and tried to repackage them into an action movie riddled with plot holes, contrivances and topped off with a happy ending. You either loved it or hated it, and I personally thought it was pretty damn funny!
So the movie opens with scenes of destruction and debacle, telling us that humanity was brought to the brink of annihilation by what was clearly WWIII. In response, a new order was formed, this one dedicated to creating a perfect society through the eradication of human emotion. Hmm, interesting spin on the 1984 concept (not to mention F451 and Brave New World!) So apparently, the civilized people live in a walled city called Libria (obvious reference to the movies title and their value system), the rest live in the “Nethers” where emotion is still practiced. The people of Libria take a drug named Prozium which “eliminates the highs and lows” of emotion (thinking they just mashed the words Prozac and Valium together) and the law is enforced by people called “Grammaton Clerics” who go out and arrest “sense offenders”. Oh, and the religious/political leader of this world is known as the “Father”. He’s the guy who founded the Librian philosophy and leads the state through the “Tetragrammaton Council”, even thought no one sees him except on big huge TV screens making his famous speeches.
Okay, first impressions… Obvious! For one, we have some clear satire on the culture of pharmaceuticals, the pills people pop when they are manic or depressed. Except here, you pop one to cure it all! Echoes of Soma, hello Brave New World! Then we have the Grammaton Clerics who go out and arrest “sense offenders”… They ARE the Thought Police, “sense offense” IS thought crime, and the way they burn the people’s houses and possessions out in the Nethers is every bit what happens in F451. Oh yeah, and the Father is totally Big Brother, and its already pretty clear he doesn’t even exist! And the religious angle is also very clear. The name Tetragrammaton for example, which is Greek for “a word having four letters, is clearly a reference to the Hebrew name of the God of Israel (YHWH). And the Grammaton Clerics, need I say more? Essentially, what they are trying to say is that the philosophy of unemotion has been elevated to the status of holy canon, making it unquestionable and the state’s authority total.
But the action is still pretty cool. For example, in the opening sequence after the intro, we see John Preston (Christian Bale) – cleric extraordinaire – go into a Nether compound. There, he shoots up an entire room of people after jump-kicking the door down and sliding into a room full of gunmen. Seems this is an example of what’s called the “Gun Kata” (or as some people called it “Gun Fu”), where clerics get into the middle of a crowd of hostiles and do a gun dance, inflicting maximum damage on the maximum amount of targets. After clearing this place out, they uncover a cache of art (sense offense materials) and burn them. We also see his partner, Errol Partridge (Sean Bean), steals a book from the scene by WB Yeats and claims he’s turning it in to be destroyed. But you totally know he isn’t! The man is clearly a “sense offender” (dammit, that sounds like sex offender when you say it fast!). Preston quickly realizes this and meets up with him in an abandoned church in the Nethers. There, they have a chat about why he’s chosen to break the law, forsake his career, and condemn himself to death. Bean claims that the price of emotion is a “cost I would pay gladly”. Not sure where that quote is from. Closest thing I could find was “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” by Wimpy, the hamburger addict from Popeye.
Then, in a move that isn’t totally contrived, Preston accidentally breaks his last vial of Prozium and the clinic is closed so he can’t restock. That’s right, an elite cleric lets his stock of mind-altering drugs run out and the factory just happened to be closed so… yeah, he’s screwed until they open again! Then, wouldn’t you know it, he begins to experience emotions and finds the awakening quite appealing (and disturbing because he now feels remorse for killing his ex-partner!) Alas, he has to hide his emotions now because he gets a new partner, some career-minded dude named Brandt who is clearly gunning for the spot of top cleric. Preston’s kids, like something out of children of the corn, are also pretty suspicious (echoes of the Spies from ’84), so he has to be careful at home as well. Only place that’s totally private and safe is the few inches that lay inside his head (’84!)
Oh yeah, we also learn a few things in the course of this that also make little sense. One, Preston had a wife that was arrested and incinerated because SHE was a sense offender. When he meets with Dupont (Angus MacFadyen), the head of the Council under the Father, he is asked how this could have happened. How does an elite cleric, best in the business, NOT notice sense offense in his own home? He replies that he himself has never been able to figure that out. Well, that makes all of us! That and the death of his partner clearly tell us that he’s going rogue real soon! Oh yeah, we also learn that there’s an Underground apparently that operates within Libria. But unlike in 1984, this resistance ACTUALLY exists and literally lives underground. Its now Preston’s job, with his new partner, to find this group and eliminate them.
They then do a mission together where they find a new batch of people in the Nethers, one of them the enigmatic Mary O’Brien (Emily Watson) who has a cache of classical music and antiques. After saving her life, Preston goes through her stuff and has a deep, emotional moment as he listens to some Mozart. This is right out of ’84 again, where Winston found an antique shop in London and was totally enamored by everything he saw in the place. Preston than commits the same act that Partridge did in the beginning, pocketing a book and claiming he was going to get rid of it himself. He then rescues a dog because (holy evil Batman!) dogs are illegal and are have to be put down. He tries to let the dog loose at the edge of town, but that ends badly when a bunch of police show up and he’s forced to kill them using some of funky, acrobatic, Gun Kata moves! Also, in the course of interrogating O’Brien, he finds himself falling in love with her. We learn in the course of things that this lovely red-headed “sense offender” knew Partridge and led him down the path of sense offense in the first place. She’s slated to die now, and he’s obviously not too happy about it.
Shortly thereafter, Dupont summons him again to talk to him about his suspicious behavior. Convinced that Preston is not telling him the truth, he slams his fist down on the table and yells “DON’T LIE TO ME!” Uh, hello? Isn’t emotion supposed to not exist for these people? And this is just the first instance of this kind of plot oversight. Afterward, while practicing what appears to be truncheon Kata, Brandt comes in and starts fighting with Preston and he lets a lot of emotions fly. For one, he keeps smiling! Second, he taunts him by telling him that since some cops turned up dead (his work), there’s going to be a big offensive in the Nethers and all sense offenders will be wiped out on site. No more arrests are processing! Last, he seems disappointed when he looses their match. And these people are suspicious of HIM? No wonder he never suspected his wife, the man’s been surrounded by sense offenders all this time and he can’t even tell! (Still sounds like sex offenders to me!)
So he rides along on one such assault, sees lots of people die and feels bad about it. Then he tries to rescue some hideaways, but Brandt finds him and orders him to kill them. He even hands him his gun to do it. He says “no, you do it”, and hands him his gun back. As if Brandt’s suspicions weren’t already confirmed, he then catches him as he runs out of the “processing center” (where O’Brien has just been incinerated) where he breaks down and start to cry right there in the street. Arrested, Preston has his ass dragged before Dupont (again!) where Brandt tells on him and says that he’s the one who shot those officers. Strangely, Preston doesn’t seem too afraid because, you see, forensics can match bullets to a specific gun. Turns out, the gun used to kill those officers was Brandt’s! We then get a quick flashback to where Preston was handing Brandt back his gun while they were together in the Nethers. Brandt is then hauled off, claiming (screaming, in fact) that he has no feelings. Okay, two things here: One, that whole gun switcheroo happened AFTER he killed those cops. How could he have shot them with Brandt’s gun if he didn’t even have his hands on it yet? This is a major plothole! How could it have gone unnoticed?! Second, Brandt once again is blatantly demonstrating emotion. How is no one noticing this?
Regardless, Preston now seems to have gained Dupont’s trust, so he’s sent on a special mission to infiltrate the Underground. Seems right up his alley, since he’s already decided to become an offender himself. But before that can happen, he must rush home and get rid of the cache of Prozium that he hasn’t been taking. He gets home and rips off the bathroom mirror (he’s been hiding them inside the wall) and is confronted by his son who tells him he needs to do a better job of stashing his vials. His son then smiles! Turns out, his kids are sense offenders too, have been ever since their mother was incinerated! How sweet… Whoa, hang on here! You’re telling me that this guy’s KIDS have been offenders for years now and HE NEVER NOTICED?! What kind of cleric is this guy? First his wife, then his kids, then his partner??? Didn’t he say near the beginning that the key to his success as a cleric was being able to get inside the head of sense offenders? How can he be suspected of being a sense offender when he’s the only one in Libria who HASN’T been sense offending this whole time?
After this close shave, he goes to the Underground and begins plotting with them. Seems they have a plan: they will stage their surrender, Preston will get the credit for the arrest and, as a reward, a chance to meet the Father. He will assassinate him while their people attack the Prozium factory. With the shipments shut down, the people will experience emotions again and rise up against the system. Ah, but there’s a snag! Turns out, as he gets there, that the Tetrarchy have other plans. They sit him down, hook him to a polygraph, and then reveal that he’s been had! Brandt is alive, it seems, and it was all a set-up! And then a video of the Father, which suddenly turns into Dupont, comes on to address him lets him in on the double-cross. The Father (like we didn’t already know) has been dead for years and Dupont has been the real head of state since that time. Oh, and that whole thing of sending him to find the Underground? Part of the set-up! You see, they could tell he was a potential offender, and figured they could use him to locate the resistance and get their hands on them. Letting him beat Brandt was just a ruse so he would feel comfortable and able to fulfill his purpose.
Yeah, this isn’t totally contrived either! According to Dupont, they were looking for an infiltrator to get into the Underground, someone who could think and feel like they did, but who wasn’t aware of it yet. Now how the hell is that supposed to work? This guy couldn’t even spot his own wife and children, and he’s supposed to be an elite cleric AND a latent sense offender? Second of all… what are they, psychic? If he was the perfect candidate for knowing how sense offenders worked, why screw him over? Last, but certainly not least, the only reason he started offending was an unlikely accident! Remember, he broke his last vial and the Prozium factory was closed? Or did they set that up too? Once again, we have a climax where the bad guys somehow foresaw everything, how everything proceeded based on their designs, even though there’s no way they could have planned this without being psychic. Whatever, it’s not supposed to make sense, it’s just supposed to tie everything up into a nice little package!
In any case, Dupont tells him to surrender without incident, but Preston isn’t about to! His polygraph levels go flat, he breaks out the sleeve-guns, and starts blowing everyone away! Yeah, this is another pretty cool action scene, but that doesn’t prevent it from being totally stupid too! I mean, how did he get those guns past the guards? Also, he makes such short work of them that the fight isn’t even suspenseful. A few bullets, a few cuts with his Katana, and everyone’s dead. His ultra-fast fight with Brandt is especially bad; not once did their swords even cross! It was just, swipe, swipe, swipe, and Brandt’s face falls off! No joke! He then takes down Dupont in a Gun Kata fight, but not before Dupont begs for his life, confessing that he himself is a sense offender (he “feels” he says). But Preston kills him anyway, quoting that killing him is “a cost I would gladly pay”. So even Dupont is a sense offender, huh? No surprises there, he’s done enough emoting to put William Shatner to shame! But I guess this was meant to be in keeping with the whole 1984 motif, where the rulers are total hypocrites who don’t follow their own rules.
Anyway, the Underground then attacks the Prozium factory, killing all the guards with ridiculous ease, and then proceeds to blow the place up. The movie then ends with a closeup of Preston’s eye as he sheds a single tear. And that’s not the only piece of blatant symbolism before the movie ends. There’s also the part where Preston wipes his bloody fingers on one of the TV’s boasting the Father’s image, right before he blows this and every other screen in the building away (somehow, this shuts down every screen in the city). So between that and the destruction of the Prozium factory, the system is now in ruins and the people of Libria free to feel. Yaaaay, the sense offenders won! (STILL sounds like sex offenders!)
I think I better start with what I actually liked about this movie since that is a much shorter list. Yes, some of the action scenes were cool, but Kurt Wimmer (who wrote AND directed this movie) has a thing for action sequences where people die way too quickly. Again and again, we see people sprayed with bullets, tons of dust flying, and dozens of people dropping in the same second. The scene at the end where the Underground is storming the government buildings is the worst of the lot, entire squads of guards drop in seconds as untrained resistance fighters shoot at them. What kind of guards are these? Whoops, supposed to be covering the good stuff here… Okay, the classic sci-fi bits were also cool at times – like how people in the Nethers stockpile whatever emotional materials they can (art, literature, music), and how the clerics are required by law to confiscate and burn them. But here too, things get unbelievably hokey! At the beginning, for example, it turns out that the rogue house was keeping priceless pieces of objets d’art hidden in the floor, which included the (REAL) Mona Lisa! Are you kidding me?
Damn it, did it again! Okay, uh… the shooting locations, which included the Olympic Stadium in Berlin and the subway station under the Reichstag building. Yeah, the way they worked their sets into these locations, that was pretty cool. And the direction wasn’t bad. The camera work, casting and acting weren’t bad either… except for Taye Diggs, who smiles way too much (you’re supposed to be emotionless, dude!) The Gun Kata was neat, and the whole “sense offender” rating system (EC-10, which has to do with the MPAA’s emotional content rating system) was kind of clever as well. Last, there was the clerical/religious angle, which was kind of cool and ironic since the state is supposed to be a society of pure reason, free of emotion, and these terms can’t help but make one think of faith – something inherently irrational.
But other than THAT, this movie sucked! The plot was totally contrived, it was riddled with plot holes, some of them glaring (i.e. the gun switch), and the ending was so totally over the top it was ridiculous! Sure, some of us were encouraged that the good guys won, unlike in the real 1984, but that didn’t make it any more believable or respectable. In fact, it really just felt like Wimmer ripped off some respectable sci-fi classics, splashed them together with a cheesy action plot and called it a movie. I’m reminded of Demolition Man, and the less said about his other flop, Ultraviolet, the better! Uh oh, I’m sensing more bad reviews to come… Equilibrium, folks! Not bad if you’re looking for a guilty pleasure, check your brain at the door!
Entertainment Value: 7/10