“They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
“I’d like to get to know you well… so we can be one together.”
It’s easy to dismiss Equilibrium. You know it can’t be too hard, because despite some fairly strong name appeal (Christian Bale, Taye Diggs, Emily Watson, Sean Bean), no one has bothered to make sure you’ve heard about it, even if only to hear something negative.
It’s easy enough to casually toss Equilibrium aside by saying that it is simply another rehashing of Fahrenheit 451, Harrison Bergeron, Brave New World, and 1984, with a bit of The Matrix thrown in for good measure, and many have done just that. Those that make such comments, however, apparently do so oblivious to the fact that they have named four highly respected works that could equally be called mere rehashings of each other, or of other things besides. Some stories are retold because people have no other ideas, and they merely slap some new gag on dated ideas. Some stories are retold because it continues to seem as though they need to be told. But sometimes, people tell old stories and throw new stories into the bargain.
This is not to say that every dystopic story is necessarily a worthy effort, but neither should movies be abandoned the instant we determine they describe a dystopia.
Equilibrium takes place not too far in the future, after World War III. At the end of that war, which naturally devastated much of the planet, it was decided that action needed to be taken so that war was never a risk again. The solution came in the form of a drug that renders people devoid of emotion. The drug, which must be taken daily, eliminates all that nasty hate, jealousy, pride, etc., that leads to war. Of course, it also eliminates all that nasty love, compassion, sense of justice, etc., that also leads to war.
By law, everyone must take the drug, and those that don’t, “sense offenders”, are killed. To enforce the law, and destroy all works of art and anything else that might lead to a sense of self, or a desire to feel, the government has created an elite police force known as clerics. These clerics, as well as being trained in classic martial arts, are also masters of something known as gunkata. Gunkata (a fairly goofy idea I grant you) is the result of computer analysis of untold hours of gunfight video. The end result is a “system” whereby a person enters close-quarter shootouts armed with the knowledge of the statistical probabilities of what is going to happen, and thus how to survive.
Already, we have a world where everyone is the same, all forms of art are outlawed, and Big Brother is watching. In our main character, John Preston (Christian Bale), we will also get the man within the system who starts to have his doubts. Our bases are pretty well covered.
Preston, among the highest-ranking clerics, starts to have his suspicions about his partner Partridge (Sean Bean). Preston’s main advantage as a cleric is that he seems to just know when people are feeling. Certain responses from his partner strike Preston as odd. It isn’t long before we get the showdown between the two, Preston having followed Partridge into the outland zones where an underground of sense offenders keeps resurfacing. Before Partridge falls, he plants the seeds of doubt into Preston’s mind.
When Preston accidentally smashes a dose of his drug one morning, and circumstances allow him an easy road to avoiding its replacement, he goes off the drug. What follows is what some might call a simplistic, or formulaic viewing of Preston’s trip down the road to feeling. He marvels at a sunrise, weeps to music, wakes in a sweat, and sees his children in a new way. Just when you thought it couldn’t get more straightforward, he stares in disbelief at the video of himself when his own wife was taken away as a sense offender. Simplistic is what some might call all these things, but it didn’t feel that way to me at all. I felt that it was merely that the movie was making no bones about what it was doing.
So now there are two easy objections to the movie. Not only is it just the same old thing again, but it is throwing the same old thing at you so bluntly. So obviously. So simply.
But, is it?
Sure, this is a movie where not only do we see video screens throughout the city which continually air the propaganda of the world leader, The Father, but it is also a movie where the world leader is known as “The Father” in the first place. Sure, the somewhat obligatory public test of sense offender status is the most obvious of all things, a puppy. (In the movie’s defense, in another direction, puppies do fit conveniently in trunks)
But, lack of subtlety, though often a flaw, is likewise not necessarily one. Even if it were, whether or not the film fails on subtlety does not seem to me such an easy question to answer. First, the plot is half-buried under a barrage of gloriously kinetic action sequences that, contrary to virtually everything to come out of “action” for at least ten years, can be appreciated in themselves. Second, the plot of a film, and what that film is about are two separate things. We have perhaps lost track of this because the answer to “What is the plot?” and “What is the film about?” so often illicit (quite correctly) the same response, but that does not mean we are asking the same question.
It is probably no surprise to say that the film is about what it means to be a person, or what it means to really be alive, but even that is to see the film only as what is most obvious. Of course it’s about that, in some sense, but it’s about that from a different angle than merely what is thrust before you. The key to where the film is really going, I think, is Taye Digg’s character, or perhaps more accurately, the obvious wrongness of his character.
Once Preston kills his partner Partridge, he is assigned another cleric partner. The arrival of Brandt (Taye Diggs – Chicago, Brown Sugar, Just a Kiss) marks the end of the Prologue, and our entrance into the actual story. Along with Brandt, we are also introduced to Dupont (Angus MacFadyen – Titus, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood). Dupont is the right hand of Father, deliverer of the law, and key contact for the clerics.
The wrongness of Brandt’s character is in that he too obviously shows emotion. Not excessively at first, but before long there is no way for us, or Preston, not to see it. While we have our suspicions that Dupont is emoting as well, it is the close and constant interaction of Preston and Brandt that not only mark this wrongness, but leads us to the easier acceptance of that same wrongness in Dupont. It is not only wrong within the context of the movie in general, but specifically in that Preston is supposed to be so good at seeing emotion. His own emotion is perhaps skewing his abilities, but either way we have a mark for these three people, and not just because they are the main characters.
I’ll leave you to figure out what is what, and who is who, but Brandt is our early trigger to the realization that these three men are id, ego, and superego. Throughout the movie, they battle and otherwise confront each other, leading to the final battle to determine who controls the psyche. Though of course, as is true of the three components of the psyche, one is merely the lapdog of another.
Perhaps it is all still obvious and simple. In some way, I can’t really disagree with that. It is. It’s right there in front of you, if that is the definition of obvious. Nevertheless, it is a movie within a movie within a movie, and at some point adding enough “within a movie”s has to add up to a certain level of subtlety.
It is first and foremost a rich, slick action movie, and it never loses that. Even seen merely on that level, it goes most action ideas one better. The knight does clang his way in full armor to the tower so that he can save the damsel, but he finds a moat in his way with no bridge to cross. By staying true to the sub-text, even the finale is made refreshing, because once the psyche has worked itself out, there isn’t much of a contest.
It is next a fairly clever look at the very “live” issue of stumbling into dystopia, not by being conquered and forced to submit, but by agreeing to it out of our own fear (which is itself a statement on id, ego, and superego). A look also at what freedom really is, what living really is, and what being safe really is. An utterly simple version of the story, but one with its abilities nonetheless. The puppy scene is so blatant as to render unto itself a certain amount of comic relief, but the slight yet harshly poignant scenes of a man coming to understand what it actually means to have children, while not being allowed to reveal his revelation, are near perfect.
The idea is not completely absent, that perhaps we are moving into dystopia faster than we think merely because maybe there are quite a lot of people who have not touched emotional adulthood in the way Preston does, despite the absence of forced drugging. Finally, it is a representation (perhaps of Preston’s own battle, perhaps simply of the battle general) of the confrontations of the different parts of the human mind. Preston and Brandt “spar” to apparent deadlock, each revealing parts of themselves. Preston and Dupont lock horns, logic, law, and the logic of the law thrown back and forth at each other.
While Preston’s transformation comes from discontinuing his injections, we imagine a time prior to the movie when the three parts of the psyche remained apart, and his transformation coming from his admitting the positives of his psychological counterparts into himself while nevertheless battling their negatives.
Christian Bale gives the performance of a lifetime, and though his cult god status is still confusing, he here tops some already fine performances. He is brilliant in the action sequences, and manages perfect inner turmoil when challenged with his emerging emotions. Helping him out is a script that is a wonderful (and surprising by today’s standards) balance of dialogue and silence. Bale’s ability to show would be meaningless without sufficient opportunity to do so. Bale has proven himself time and again since Equlibrium, and he has without question one of today’s finest actors.
Taye Diggs, legitimate up-and-comer that he is, gives us aperformance nearly as good as Bale’s. Slightly overreaching at times, his Brandt is nevertheless about the best we could hope for, and he has a commanding presence that is critical for his role in the action.
Angus MacFadyen is brilliantly precise. I’m not sure that he’s brilliant in general, but he is most definitely brilliant in his precision. Dupont is given to us with not a single mark straying outside the lines. If that makes it a perfect portrayal I’m not so sure, but it does cement the sub-text, and that’s important.
Emily Watson passes, but that is about all her character will allow. A sense offender that Preston focuses on, the character is necessary, but left insubstantial. Sean Bean is in a similar circumstance, obviously not available for much of the movie, but he does manage to make himself memorable.
It is difficult to champion a movie in the face of mass negative opinion. It is yet more difficult to champion a movie in the face of mass refusal to believe it exists at all. Be that as it may, this wildly imaginative retelling gets my highest recommendation, and topped my ten best list for the year. You can’t avoid comparing it to The Matrix, but it isn’t fair. Even such comparisons that are positive fall short, because it is The Matrix that should be compared to this. Equilibrium is the thinking man’s The Matrix, and it was already a thinking man’s game.
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