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Equilibrium
Reviewed by Jason Myers, © 2002

Format: Movie
By:   Kurt Wimmer (writer/director)
Genre:   Sci-Fi/Action
Released:   December 6, 2002
Review Date:   December 03, 2002
Audience Rating:   R
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)
In a stark, sanitized future marked by conformity and overseen by a "Father" who spouts state-sanctioned propaganda through ubiquitous television monitors (George Orwell's 1984, the masses line up at Equilibrium stations to get their doses of a numbing drug (Aldous Huxley's Brave New World). After World War III, it was decided that, to stamp out violence, the thing which causes violence -- human emotion -- must be obliterated. It is illegal to possess paintings, music, and books, and when this contraband is discovered, it is burned (Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451). Introduction into the underground resistance movement comes through the forbidden fruit of art (the excellent movie version of Kurt Vonnegut's short story Harrison Bergeron). And at the center of the story is a member of the elite law-enforcement agency dedicated to upholding order in this brave new world (Nolan and Johnson's Logan's Run, and the Philip K. Dick movie adaptations Blade Runner and Minority Report).

But wait, there's more. The enforcers are called Clerics, a monastic order of warriors who train like Jedi and wield guns the way Ninja wield the Katana. It's a bleak anti-utopian sci-fi movie. It's a bullet-riddled Kung Fu action movie. It's two, two, two movies in one. A strange world in which "sense offenders" hoard museum-quality paintings and stockpile automatic weapons to defend their right to bear art.

As odd as this mix might seem at first, it works for the most part. Excellent performances ground the story in humanity, keeping it from floating away in a sea of Orwellian cliches. Small roles portrayed by seriously good actors create ripples that are felt even when the characters aren't on screen. This is true for the characters played by Emily Watson (Red Dragon, Punch-Drunk Love), Sean Pertwee (Dog Soldiers), and Sean Bean (whose performance in The Fellowship of the Ring made Boromir a far more humane and memorable character than he ever was in the book). Also of note is Cleric John Preston's creepy automaton of a son. And, of course, Cleric John Preston himself, played by Christian Bale. As an actor, Bale is slick, smart and under-appreciated, and he has a knack for picking slick, smart and under-appreciated (at the box office) projects (American Psycho and Reign of Fire).

Writer/director Kurt Wimmer's camera worships the leonine hard-edged grace of his death-dancing Clerics, but still finds time to linger over the simpler sensuality of a hand running over a cold stair railing, the warmth of fingers barely touching, and the ache that a scent-soaked red ribbon can cause when held against the background of a colorless world. Meanwhile, the music that rumbles beneath the story is a cathedral-full of menacing choral arrangements and low-pitched bells held together with electronic threads.

There were things, however, that allowed the grumpy over-analyzing movie critic sitting on my left shoulder to distract the happy-go-lucky cinephile on my right shoulder. For starters, the old-fashioned sci-fi dystopian society just isn't quite as scary as it used to be. Those post-WWII fictions were colored by lingering fears that our future might somehow end up like a cross between the stifling "everyone must wear the same color of clothing" Eurasian totalitarian communism and the goose-stepping cult-of-personality fascism of the Nazis (It's Hitlerrific!). I'm not saying that the issues of freedom of thought and expression aren't current. It's that the Orwellian trappings seem quaint. After all, it's been nearly 20 years since Orwellian imagery was used to sell Apple computers, and the endless sameness of workers droning at their desks in the offices of 1984's Ministry of Truth doesn't look much different from the cubicles most Americans sit at during the workweek.

Secondly, in a post-Neo world, pretty much every western film that's heavy into eastern martial arts is going to wind up categorized as "not as cool as The Matrix" or "too much like The Matrix." And Equilibrium, from its movie poster to its all-black costume design to its hallway fire-fight scene, is just begging to get spanked by critics. It's hard not to see an influence there, although of course The Matrix mostly took things that Asian audiences had already seen and introduced it to Americans.

I'll say this for Equilibrium's fight scenes, though: I've watched a butt-load of Kung Fu and gun-play movies, from the East and the West, and there were things in Equilibrium that I'd never seen before. If you take away The Matrix's admittedly nifty gravity-defying and time-twisting effects, Equilibrium's Clerics could stand toe to toe with Morpheus and Trinity, and not even flinch. Particularly beautiful is the Clerics' use of what Wimmer calls Gun-Kata, an extremely close-quarters pistol-fighting style. The climactic scene is a breakneck gun ballet that would make Hong Kong director John Woo soil himself.

Okay, so after happy-go-lucky cinephile cracks grumpy over-analyzing movie critic across the temple with a semi-automatic pistol, it turns out that Equilibrium is just as entertaining as this year's other notable dystopian sci-fi release, the well-received Minority Report. And it wouldn't surprise me if Equilibrium develops a cult following and ages better than Spielberg's flashy Kubrick-Lite film.


Jason Myers is RevSF's Film/DVD Editor, and a badge-carrying member of the Thought Police.

 
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