Retrospective Review: Equilibrium
By Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)
Christian Bale was kicking ass before he ever donned the Batman cape. He was a “gun kata” killing expert in the 2002 film Equilibrium. A dystopian sci-fi film, it barely made a ripple in the genre at the time, but it is an enjoyable and entertaining movie nonetheless.
Kurt Wimmer wrote Equilibrium and made his directorial debut with the film. On a budget of $20 million, Wimmer created an exciting and fun adventure for the audience. So here’s the set-up: Equilibrium takes place in the fictional city of Libria, following WWIII. The world realized it couldn’t survive another world war and took drastic action by creating a drug for the population called Prozium. The medication suppresses feelings and emotions. The people are governed by the totalitarian Tetragrammaton Council, headed by a figure called “Father.” Grammaton Clerics are an elite group trained in “gun kata” (a type of martial arts invented and coined for the film) who strictly enforce the law against “sense offenders.” Looking at art, listening to music, reading a book, or even feeling are all crimes in the new society, punishable by death (without trial).
You’ve got the background now… A future dystopian society that sounds like a real bummer to live in. Now, place Christian Bale as Grammaton Cleric John Preston into the new world order. He is efficient and unfeeling as he carries out his enforcement duties, until his partner Errol Partridge (Sean Bean) is revealed as a sense offender himself. Preston begins to question the society and his place in it, and after a missed dose of the emotion-suppressant drug Prozium, Preston himself begins to feel. As he experiences the world more fully than ever before, he sees the people around him differently and finds that the job is not necessarily a moral one. He attempts to hide his feelings from new partner Andrew Brandt (Taye Diggs), but Brandt is perceptive and ambitious. There’s a bit of a love story in it, albeit a weak (and kind of unnecessary) one, which is supposed to spur Preston into action. Needless to say, Preston finds an underground resistance, and aligns with them. (Or does he?) I’ll save you from the spoilers, but you probably have a fairly good guess as to what comes next!
There’s the 411 on the plot. The problem is that it’s nothing new. Critics have accused Kurt Wimmer of ripping off works like Farenheit 451 and Orwell’s 1984. I’d like to think Equilibrium is the baby of The Matrix and The Giver, raised by the nanny, 1984. However you see it, the movie appears to be a mish-mash of other stories we heard before. But let’s be honest, all dystopian stories are the same, and have been for several decades. There’s almost always a hero/heroine who is trapped in a society that is negative in some way, although the new society is usually formed in an effort to be positive and save humanity or make it better. But the new society discourages feeling, individuality, or even freedom of thought. Something that people feel is the epitome of human nature is illegal. The government is oppressive. The hero/heroine is different in some way, for some reason. They buck the system and revolt. The dystopian story is cookie-cutter at this point and the formula is hard to deviate from. So, like many, Equilibrium fell into the trappings of the formula.
However, despite the mixing and matching that is Equilibrium, the story is still entertaining and still leads a conscientious viewer to contemplate. Fictional governments eliminating art, music, books, etc., and taking them from the people was also done by a very real government under Hitler. How subversive can literature, art, and music be? What kind of tools can they become? What kind of power comes in the form of symbolism and a lone figurehead leading people? How much of our lives is affected by our emotions? How do our decisions change if made without emotion? Would the world look and feel different without feeling? While there is unity in sameness and logic, what is lost? What price are we willing to pay for perceived security? The character John Preston (Bale) initially believes that with no war and no murder the world is better for it. His first partner, Partridge (Bean) said it was “a heavy cost.” The rebel “sense offender” character Mary O’Brien (Emily Watson) has an especially poignant moment when Preston asks her about the point of her existence. She says, “To feel. Because you’ve never done it, you can never know it. But it’s as vital as breath. And without it, without love, without anger, without sorrow, breath is just a clock… ticking.” Whoa. If all that doesn’t get the hamster turning the wheel up in the attic, you’re missing something!
The story may not be original, but I think Equilibrium is redeemed by the action sequences and by its overall production (costumes, sets, lighting, etc.). Rated R for violence, Equilibrium certainly doesn’t shy away from hitting, shooting, slicing, and generally hurting characters. As of 2009 (sorry for not having more recent statistics, folks!), John Preston (Bale) killed 118 characters (half of the total character deaths in the movie), putting him in 3rd place for most deaths directly caused by a character. But in general, the violence is tasteful, and at times even graceful! No wire work was used for stunts in the film, and Christian Bale did a majority of his own stunts. And he made action sequences look slick! If you’re looking for realistic fighting, “gun kata” is far from truth. The film tries to explain how statistics and probability make it possible and useful, but the façade is a stretch. However, the fighting style is still fun, entertaining, and almost beautiful in its execution. Yes, it’s flashy and over the top, but as a viewer, I’ll happily take the quick cuts over slow motion (which seems to be often over-used in action flicks, in my opinion). The fighting style felt more realistic with the use of swords (yes, there’s swords!), which made it easy on the eyes!
Again, another redeeming quality of Equilibrium is the overall production. The outright story may be cliché, but there are more subtle ways to tell a story, which Wimmer and his team did with incredible success! Very few sets were built from scratch for the movie. Most of the filming for Equilibrium occurred in Germany (with some shooting in Rome as well). The production team felt that the fascist architecture really lent itself to the story, with massive structures almost becoming characters themselves by representing the government nearly swallowing up individuals. The genius of the film-makers must be noted, as several sets were re-used due to the low budget of the film, but with changes in lighting or rearranging objects within the sets, they looked different (while maintaining some of the uniformity so valued in the fictional society). The look of the film was clear and consistent through the telling of the story.
Equilibrium used color like a character, a tool that was absolutely representative of the story. The sameness of Libria was emphasized by the use of various shades of gray. (No, not THAT kind of shades of gray!) This made the introduction of a color like red all the more alarming and eye-catching. The stark contrast between Preston’s typical outfit of black and his white uniform in the final scenes of the movie drew a line between an old self and a new one, integral in the character arc. The white also created a canvas upon which the red of blood, violence, and death could be painted and observed. In addition, the beginning of the film is completely washed-out faded almost to the point of black-and-white, but as Preston begins to feel, the colors warm up, and by the end of the film you’re seeing things more brilliantly and vividly than ever before. This color saturation effect allows us to make the journey alongside Preston as he also comes more alive and sees the world more fully.
Other subtle factors were integrated into the telling of Equilibrium, fleshing out the story and providing depth when the story itself did not. For example, law enforcement faces were always covered up, and their voices always sounded as if they were coming over a radio. This took away the humanity of the enforcers, further elaborating on their uniformity as well as their lack of feeling and connection. While colors evolved, so did Preston’s outfit. He began with the black outfit and a buttoned covering (like a jacket), but as he began to feel more, the covering came off. Then the collar would be unbuttoned. He finally finished in an outfit of white, an opposite to what had represented him visually at the start of the film.
The ultimate evolution was told through the tremendous performance by Christian Bale. Playing a character who is at first stoic and cold without coming across as a bit of a zombie can be a challenge, but it was one that he was able to face and overcome. As the character Preston began to feel more and come alive, Bale almost seemed to leak emotions, as if they were sneaking out of him without permission – which, I imagine, would be the experience of an adult man who has never felt before in his life as the medications leached out of his system. He accurately conveys the immensity and gravity of feeling for the first time! During the transition, Bale is expected to play first as cold and unfeeling and then to play as a person feeling who is pretending to be cold and unfeeling. (It’s like Robert Downey Jr. as a dude playing the dude disguised as another dude.) It’s a demanding feat, but Bale 100% delivered on that performance. (I guess he was just practicing for when he would play a millionaire who is hiding a secret identity when he capes up in Gotham.)
Also, a shout-out to Sean Bean’s performance is warranted. The director and a producer stated that many people didn’t even want to read for the role of Errol Partridge because they felt there was too little screen time. However, the role is pivotal in the story, in the awakening of the protagonist Preston. Bean brought a gravitas to the character that was necessary. In a short time, he was able to be the spark in igniting the fire within Preston!
A final shout-out to the cutest puppy in all of creation. Let’s just say that adorable ball of fluff was also pivotal in the awakening of Preston. Good dog!
There you have it. My conclusion is that Equilibrium may not be the most original story you’ll see, but it’s definitely entertaining and fun! You can happily walk away from the movie and feel assured that you enjoyed your time in Libria with Cleric John Preston and company.