It seems that the general audience of dystopian fiction like action with their social commentary. From The Road Warrior to The Matrix, Fallout to The Last Of Us, many tales set in a world of ruin follow their heroes from one action sequence to another. Considering the less than favorable reaction that people had to the film adaptation of R M’s The Road, maybe the action route is the way to go. One of the best examples of a movie that mixes its action with an interesting standpoint on the human condition is Equilibrium, a film from 2000 that appears to be aging gracefully.
In the aftermath of World War III, the survivors gathered to determine how to prevent their extinction. To curtail future wars and aggression, they introduced humanity to a drug called Prozium, which suppresses human emotion. Within the city of Libria, all citizens are required to take the drug, a universal law enforced by the exceptionally trained and singularly uncompromising Grammaton Cleric. Some have fled Libria into the area called the Nether, trying to live and feel on their own terms. But the Cleric are hunting them down. The greatest among the Cleric is John Preston, a stoic and implacable example of Libria’s new order. But then John’s partner and mentor begins to feel…
It’s clear from the outset that the foundation of Equilibrium is some unholy union between George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The austerity of Libria and its harsh stance against emotion are indicative of a leadership that suppresses its populace, a feature in both novels. The presence of “Father” and the ways in which the Cleric execute their duties are strongly reminiscent of “Big Brother” and the thoughtcrimes of 1984, while Prozium’s direct manipulation of people’s minds and emotions harken to the psychological manipulation and manipulative eugenics of Brave New World. The focus on emotional suppression as opposed to direct thoughtcrimes is an interesting one, but neither of the novels have as many visceral gunfights as Equilibrium does.
The gunfights having their own aesthetic and energy compared to other movies is a true strength.
In addition to its classic dystopian influence, and a good amount of Yeats, Equilibrium has the gun katas. The ‘martial art’ of the Grammaton Cleric, the gun katas are a high-energy method for fighting with firearms that emphasizes rapidly changing body movements, precise aim, and dodging incoming fire. Much like the martial arts in a movie that is often compared to Equilibrium, The Matrix, the gun katas are one of the main draws of the film, other than its theme. Unlike The Matrix, the “cool factor” of the martial arts do not overwhelm the story, and remain fresh and interesting even as multiple fights happen. It seems like Preston is always doing something slightly different in each fight, which keeps the audience engaged as the story rolls along.
If Equilibrium has a flaw, its that the film feels a bit like going to a dystopian sci-fi buffet. It borrows a little from this source, a little from that source, and the result can feel a bit like a hodgepodge that struggles to be more than the sum of its parts. Long-standing sci-fi aficionados may get annoyed at this approach. There’s also the fact that burrowing as much as it does from other sources causes the movie to both struggle to find an identity of its own and maintain a feeling of originality in its story. V for Vendetta may feel like a more grounded dystopia, and The Matrix for all of its flaws does have a somewhat unique aesthetic and world, putting Equilibrium squarely in the “average” category when it comes to story and world-building. Neither of those are why I’d recommend this film, however.
Proof that it’s not natural to be a completely stoic action hero (looking at you, Master Chief).
I’ve mentioned Equilibrium in the past, regarding how characters that emote reasonably are easier for an audience to relate to. And the courses the characters take when it comes to feeling, not feeling, and beginning to feel again are extremely relatable. Over and above the theme and the action, the characters may be the best draw of the film. They easily could have pushed their emotions and reactions into camp or overwrought territory. Instead, the cast keeps their feelings understated and nuanced. Christian Bale may have had a terrible Batman voice, but he also shows that he is capable of transmitting a variety of emotions from someone unused to them and uncomfortable with them without saying a single word.
Stuff I Like: The gun katas are pretty cool. None of the cast phones it in. The film has a solid foundation and inspiration.
Stuff I Don’t Like: The film has to work really hard to maintain its own identity given how much it borrows from other sources.
Stuff I Love: The puppy, the red ribbon, Sean Bean, and the scene in the library. The fact that Preston does not succeed in everything he attempts. The presence of subtlety in an over-the-top action movie. The emphasis on the importance of human emotion, and how the positive aspects of it can overcome the negative.
Bottom Line: Equilibrium may not be the best action film ever made, or the best sci-fi dystopia film, but it’s straightforward and earnest message coupled with some unique visuals and excellent cast do make it a favorite. A film does not have to be entirely flawless to earn a recommendation or repeated viewings, and Equilibrium is an excellent example of this. Available on Netflix and other sources, it’s great for its fresh take on classic material, even if it’s been ground that’s been tread before.