Tell me, dear reader, what do you feel right now? Do you feel sad, bored, angry, horny, or maybe even all of the above? Can you imagine what it would be like to not feel any of those things? More importantly, do you feel you’d be better off without them?
Well that is the question posed by director Kurt Wimmer in his 2002 dystopian sci-fi masterpiece Equilibrium.
Set at an indeterminate point in the future of the 21st century, humanity has endured a third world war (this time it’s nuclear!) and the survivors have pointed the blame at pesky things called emotions for causing all of the horrors that people have perpetrated through the centuries. As a result, in the city state of Libria, where most of the film takes place, emotions are outlawed and suppressed by bi-daily injections of the fictional drug named Prozium.
Think that’s a fair trade? Would you sacrifice being able to enjoy cat videos on youtube for the ability to never get angry at the comments section ever again? Maybe this speech from Father, the mysterious leader of Libria, can sway you:
“Prozium - The great nepenthe. Opiate of our masses. Glue of our great society. Salve and salvation, it has delivered us from pathos, from sorrow, the deepest chasms of melancholy and hate. With it, we anesthetize grief, annihilate jealousy, obliterate rage. Those sister impulses towards joy, love, and elation are anesthetized in stride, we accept as fair sacrifice. For we embrace Prozium in its unifying fullness and all that it has done to make us great.”
Great stuff, eh? Makes you want to just cast off the shackles of humanity and embrace the robot within!
Already you can see that Equilibrium deviates from most sci-fi action romps with a little bit of thought into the nature of humanity and the dominance of human emotion in just about every aspect of our lives. You may not realise it but the way you feel dictates decisions you make even as small as arranging your desk.
What’s that? Having second thoughts and want to go back to being an emotional hormone-driven sack of meat?
In Libria the view of emotions and possession of things that create/are created by emotions (such as art etc), known as sense-offence, is punishable by being put in a furnace for a little while. With it switched on. Until you are dead. Yes, the crime of feeling emotions in Libria is death.
Any crime requires enforcement, and this is provided by a sizable police force and a cadre of specialist enforcers from Libria’s main governing and religious organisation, known as the Tetragrammaton.
These enforcers are known as Clerics and they employ a form of martial arts completely made up by Wimmer in his back garden: the Gun Kata. This is based around a theory that there are a set number of statistically probable angles of return fire in any given gunfight and that with enough training a person can counter them, even with their eyes closed (or in the dark, as shown during the film).
This makes for visually impressive fight scenes, blending good old-fashioned shootouts with elements of the Wing Chun style of martial arts, which are fast-paced, visceral, and incredibly satisfying to watch.
The opening scenes see our protagonist, Tetragramatton Cleric (first class) John Preston (played by Christian Bale) helping to neutralise a den of rebel sense-offenders in the Nethers, a colloquialism for the dilapidated ruins that make up everywhere that isn’t Libria. Here we get to see the Gun Kata in action, the dogmatic destruction of emotions and the things that cause emotions, and the fact that Preston’s colleague Errol Partridge (Sean Bean) is secretly an offender.
Now, considering their training, you’d expect Clerics to just be a fairly blunt enforcement tool but they are also specialists in picking up emotions in others and reading the subtle behavioural clues that reveal them. This leads to a confrontation in an abandoned church with Partridge reading a book of poetry by Yeats and Preston killing him for it (Pratridge, not Yeats. Yeats is already dead).
Oh don’t give me that look, it’s hardly a spoiler; it is Sean Bean after all!
What Equilibrium does really well, apart from splendid action, is provide a study of human emotions from the point of view of someone who is experiencing them for the first time. When Preston forgets to take his dose he wakes up after having a nightmare of his dead wife (convicted of sense-offence), sees the beauty of a sunrise, and is utterly terrified by the experience. Even the sensation of fear is completely new to him, and the sensation is overwhelming. He rushes to the bathroom to take his interval, puts the dispenser to his neck, and then… can’t bring himself to do it.
What we then see next is a gradual progression as Preston experiences strange and new feelings, from the sensation of a cold metal handrail against his skin right through to an outpouring of emotion caused by a recording of Beethoven's 9th Symphony that had him break down crying.
The film is clever in this progression and we start to see Preston begin to take on the same behaviour that we saw in Partridge as he hides his new-found humanity from the world around him, particularly his new Cleric partner Andrew Brandt (Taye Diggs). Because of this we are also able to see the signs of emotion in other key characters, and are rewarded for this observation later during the film’s climax.
The cinematography of the movie is engineered to emphasise the dominating feel of Libria itself, borrowing heavily from the concepts of early 20th century delineator and architect Hugh Ferris. This comes across through the use of many real-life locations in Berlin for interior and exterior shots, creating a sense of cyclopean architecture that leaves the individual small and insignificant compared to the whole; just another cog in the machine.
Unfortunately the film didn’t garner much in the way of critical acclaim, with a paltry rating of 38% on Rotten Tomatoes, 33/100 on Metacritic, and Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times describing it as “a ridiculous sci-fi action melodrama” and accusing it of borrowing heavily from Fahrenheit 451, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and other classic sci-fi dystopias.
On the flip side we can find a bizarrely positive 3 out of 4 stars from, oh, just some guy called Roger Ebert. The godfather of critique stated that “’Equilibrium' would be a mindless action picture, except that it has a mind”, and that “unlike many futuristic combos of sf and f/x, it does make a statement”. All in all, Ebert seems to reflect fairly benevolently upon the message that Equilibrium is trying to impart and it’s method for doing so (“by burying it in the story and almost drowning it with entertainment”).
That message is a simple but powerful one: that if any regime wants to control their populace they must stamp out art. If a person cannot create art, then they cannot exercise freedom of expression, and thus they are unable to voice their displeasure against their oppressors with any real, far-reaching impact. It’s a reminder that even in modern society we still see attempts to police our thoughts and opinions through media suggestion or even the slow erosion of the importance of the arts in education.
Something of this message may have gotten through to the general viewership as, despite the profusion of negative critical reviews, the movie still enjoys a rating of 7.5/10 on IMDB.
The reason for this discrepancy is fairly inconclusive but, as Ebert himself said, “In a free society many, maybe most, audience members will hardly notice the message” and “assume thought control can't happen here”. However, perhaps we need to reflect more carefully on the message of Equilibrium before we end up in a society where the movie is not just a parable but a parallel.
Whatever I or the critics say, you should go and watch the movie to make a decision for yourself. I’m not going to police your thoughts or emotions by, say… mentioning that at one point Preston has to rescue a ridiculously adorable puppy or anything like that.