In a stark, sanitized future marked by conformity and overseen by a "Father" who
spouts state-sanctioned propaganda through ubiquitous television monitors (George
, 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
). 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
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.