Equilibrium (2002)

2002-12-06 (Limited release)

The future looks grim and preposterous in Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium. The U.S. went to war with Iraq and started WWIII, which led to all commerce and government going to hell (who knew?). In order to combat ongoing chaos, a new regime — orchestrated via tv appearances by a gray-haired fellow named “Father” — has outlawed all displays of feelings. Thank goodness that the totally cut Christian Bale gets in touch with his Inner Keanu and saves the world for all who want to express themselves freely. Hooray for kicking opponents’ heads in, fancy wirework, and twirling black topcoats — emoting at its best.

Predictably, there’s a bit of movie tedium to endure before this gonzo payoff. That is, before Bale’s character, the dismally named Clerick John Preston, comes to his senses, he’s a dedicated member of Team Oppressive. Here that’s a generically fascistic government ruling Libria, a city full of massive Mussolini-style architecture. So here’s the basic illogic of this system: Father’s spokesperson, Master Clerick (Angus MacFadyen), rallies his agents to kill “sense offenders” by damning the “disease” of human emotion with a thunderously emotional display. Apparently Father & Co. have forgotten the Nazis were damn passionate about their mission.

The Clericks spend their time rounding up and killing hundreds of “resistance” fighters during night sweeps of the dark and poverty-stricken sections of the city. (Killing to stop the killing — the illogic would be laughable if it weren’t so like the logic behind the pitches for “Iraq Attack.”) The primary means of maintaining emotional “equilibrium” is to medicate the entire population; every morning John and his two young children pop Prozium II pills, and every morning John’s Children-of-the-Cornish son quizzes his father, as if to catch him out in some show of emotion.

John’s efforts to stay cool stem from personal experience — his own wife was found out as one of those offenders some time ago, and was hauled out of the house, in front of their young children and John. As they huddle in the hallway and wifey begs him to remember her, he stands by in the (routine) flashback scene, “emotionless,” devoted to his duty and the rightness of the cause.

So ardent is John that he thinks nothing of torching the Mona Lisa (apparently the most recognizable bit of “art” the filmmakers could concoct to make the point) when he finds it hidden beneath some floorboards. He takes a certain pride — not emotional, but professional — in his physical perfection, capacity for cruel and efficient violence, and ability to ferret out emotional “whiffs” from anyone. Predictably, he comes to a series of crossroads (the earlier execution of the Mrs. was apparently not one), the first involving his partner, the pensive Partridge (Sean Bean). John discovers Partridge illegally reading Yeats (confiscated “evidence” that he kept for himself), late at night in the destitute part of town. Poetically, he shoots Partridge through the book he’s holding up to his face.

Such frenzied metaphors almost save Equilibrium from being this season’s Impostor, that is, the latest undercooked Phillip K. Dick-based flick. Since Blade Runner, the once prescient Dick has been a source of timely material for filmmakers looking to underline — from a science-fictionish distance — the danger of police states, wartime hysterias, and ultra-conformity. Equilibrium recalls Blade Runner and Minority Report, of course, as well as Gattaca, THX-1138, The Matrix, and George Orwell. Though Equilibrium achieves some admirably campy excess in the fight scenes (the hyperkinetic image of Patrick Bateman channeling Neo is oddly irresistible), most of its deriving and homaging never extends beyond the obvious.

Still, there’s some plot to be handled at this surface level: John is assigned a new partner, the viciously — er, dispassionately — striving Clerick Brandt (Taye Diggs). As he begins to ponder Partridge’s interest in the book (and even recall his own wife’s demise), John is apparently distracted enough that he doesn’t notice that Brandt is another version of his previous self. This despite the fact that Brandt mentions their resemblance and his desire to be just like John more than once. Easily their most entertaining encounter occurs in the gym, where they’re working out neo-macho-man-style. At this point, you can imagine why either of them signed on for this project — such intensity, such jaw-jutting and teeth-gritting, must be rare in scripts these days.

Much as John and Brandt plainly have a need for one another, John further jeopardizes their partnership, his career, and his life when he stops taking his pills (hiding them in the wall behind his bathroom cabinet — could this superstar stealth agent have picked a less clever hiding place?). Without his meds, jeez, suddenly everything looks different. John has an increasingly hard time slaughtering resistance fighters, he’s nice to a puppy, and he falls for a sense offender taken prisoner, Mary O’Brien (Emily Watson), whose perfume bottle intoxicates him. When he visits her in prison, under the pretense of interrogating her, their mutual attraction evolves soap-operatically, though what she sees in this jackbooted bully is less fathomable than his fetishizing of her red hair ribbon.

Here, emotion — the abstract enemy — becomes concrete. John starts feeling everything — fingering Mary’s gewgaws while supposedly searching her apartment for contraband. He gets woozy. The very objectness of the objects overwhelms him. He might as well be slapping his forehead with astonishment: so this is what all the hubbub is about! He turns this discovery back around into a rationale for exactly what he was trained to do — kill squadrons of assailants with moves faster than the eye can see, accompanied by an exhilarating dance track. Emotion or not-emotion: it all looks the same.