DVD Review: Equilibrium
May 16, 2006
Everybody loves a good dystopian, socially thought-provoking flick.
Well, at least, I do. Given today's global political climate, they seem to enjoy a more receptive audience. (I'm thinking of Good Night, And Good Luck, V for Vendetta, Syriana etc.)
I can't believe I'm about to give credit to cable/pay television, but without it, I most certainly would not have discovered the film of this discussion, Equilibrium. Not long after, I ordered it on DVD. Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer, the story centers around John Preston (played by Christian Bale), who is part of the Grammaton Order, in a future not too far removed from our own.
As a First Order Cleric in the Order, he is responsible for upholding laws designed to obliterate the possibility of world war and its associated destruction and death. In order for peace and for its continued existence, drastic measures have been adopted by society. Art in all forms has been outlawed and the supposedly enlightened citizens must take a daily dose of a drug called 'Prozium' to suppress feelings and emotions. It is argued that our extremes of emotion have caused past atrocities, such as the Third World War, which we presume has occurred in the recent past of this society.
Preston is an ideal within his order. He genuinely believes in his role within society and its importance. This leads to countless discoveries of hidden stockpiles of paintings, musical recordings, and other belongings that betray their owners to be experiencing emotion and thereby leading to the arrest and extermination of persons, or 'sense offenders,' those who deliberately cease taking their Prozium in order to remember what being human is really like.
But all good things must come to an end. When Preston is forced to convict and exact justice upon his own Cleric partner Partridge (played by Sean Bean) as a sense offender, he is finally forced to question and eventually oppose the ideas of the supposedly enlightened society he is a part of.
I don't really want to spoil it for anyone who has not yet seen it; I'd like to focus now on why I love this film so damn much. When friends ask me to sum up why I'm so keen on it, I tell them that it's one of the more thought-provoking, intelligent action films I've ever seen. Yes, at the risk of being crucified, it is even more so than The Matrix trilogy of films. Admittedly, the action scenes in Equilibrium require some serious suspension of belief, but it's hard not to be impressed, as they're really slick. It's not really helped by the fact that Bale is somewhat aesthetically pleasing to look at...
Anyway, before I get distracted, a look at some crucial scenes before Preston's eventual rebellion that hint to us that he may have experienced emotion, even as a Cleric. I can't confirm this but am fascinated endlessly by the ambiguity in the storytelling. Perhaps I'm just easily amused.
In the first of such scenes Preston witnesses Partridge commit a sense offence. The two are in the backseat of a car, Yeats poetry volume protruding from Partridge's pocket (seized after busting an art 'stash') and Preston says something about the raid reminding him why he does the job he does, to which Partridge replies:
This subtle speech inflection and the Yeats volume prove more than enough to confirm his hunch later.
The second scene is a dream sequence. (I won't go Freudian, but there: I've said so you have to consider it...shudder.) Preston is reliving the arrest of his wife for sense offences. She kisses him as she is dragged out. Preston and his children can do nothing but watch.
Later, when Preston has ceased taking Prozium, he watches filmed footage of her incineration, and turns his head as she walks into the booth. Does this indicate he's just committed a sense crime? It does spur him to try and halt the incineration of a woman, Mary (played by Emily Watson), arrested by him who incidentally was also Partridge's lover.
Notice that she walks into the booth after the red vinyl cape is removed from her, yet when the booth is closed, we see a close-up of a hand, clutching at red vinyl - is this Mary's hand or that of Preston's wife? Mary supposedly walks into the booth wearing a black dress. It may just be a continuity error.
It astounds me that this film isn't more popular, really. It might be because it's largely made in Europe, or because a lot of the main characters are played by non-American actors (I checked this out on IMDB and Wimmer states he chose such actors deliberately, in the DVD commentary), or is it that the soundtrack is practically non-existent unlike all that bombastic John-Williams stuff? Some soundtracks really bash it into that you should feel 'sad' at point A, or 'elation' at point B of the narration, and so on.
One might argue that in order to create this "not-another-bleak-future" pic, Wimmer flogged things from all over the place - literary, visual, and historical (on the commentary he says critics accuse him of this), but that's fine, the film wouldn't work without all that referencing, it didn't seem token, or boastful. It enhanced the narrative, I feel.
I never know what to make of Equilibrium, not fully: some days it serves to remind me of just how depressing life on medication is (and believe me, I know) and how psychological disorders are on the increase, other days it's some sort of Brechtian didactic piece on humanity. Many other days, it's just a freaking kick-arse action flick set in a possible reality one hopes never ever comes into being. Then again, if the iconoclast of such a regime is going to be anywhere near as bonkable as Christian Bale...
Sorry, couldn't resist: I'm trying to redeem myself for making you all sit here for so bloody long. Just go and watch it for yourselves.