There are few movies I see twice while still in theaters, "Equilibrium" is one of them. It doesn't try to show off, yet it has some of most jaw-dropping scenes of martial arts you'll ever see. It's a crafty and uplifting thriller that will be enjoyed by the very few of us who will ever see it. Thanks to some bad decisions from the Dimension Films management department, there were literally no advertisements for the film, and the trailer was almost never aired.
The plot is a familiar one, but no less fun than any sci-fi where the future looks dark, bleak, and hopeless. We meet John Preston (Christian Bale), a young officer who has risen in the ranks to become the top Cleric, a part of an elite and brutal task force that regulates the community. Their job is to arrest (or kill) offenders who break the laws in the city of Libria. Books, music, paintings, and everything else that spark emotions or feelings are banned and can earn you a trip to the incinerator, or as it is called in this movie, "the processing center." These violations are called “sense crimes,” and the act of prosecuting the offenders often results in severe loss of life and bloodshed.
In the opening scene, after Preston narrates recent history regarding the war that occurred beforehand, and how society has been reshaped to eliminate the future possibilities of another global conflict, the clerics find a stash of illegal contraband, including the original Mona Lisa (the only painting everyone in the audience will recognize). They immediately burn it. They find other colorful works of art and famous literature, then burn it.
I know this sounds a lot like another "1984" or "Fahrenheit 451" done in "The Matrix" style. I personally like to think of it as "The Giver" on testosterone. Like in previous works, the citizens are required to take a daily dose of some kind of suppressant, here it is called prozium, and injectable serum that allows you to maintain your robot like status; unable to be stimulated by anything pleasurable. But this movie has traits that the previously mentioned don’t. I will get to those in a moment. The message is the same though--Freedom is a threat to a sterile state. Opinions are dangerous; they only lead to more violence.
For most of the movie, we watch clerics duel it out with pockets of resistance. The action is breathtaking as “Equilibrium” showcases a new form of martial arts called Gun-Kata; a deadly form of weapon combat where guns replace knives.
But there are wielding blades, sword fights, and plenty acts of hand-to-hand combat. While it all sounds gratuitous, and much of it is--the fighting in this movie is done in artistic style. One gunfight occurs in total darkness. The screen is lit only by the fire emitted from the machine guns. The other fight scenes are just as beautifully orchestrated and well choreographed in true acrobatic fashion. Look for Preston to pull off a few back flips while dodging bullets and firing off a few rounds of his own.
Critics have attacked "Equilibrium" for being just another futuristic movie that recycles the same material. But there is an abundance of original artistic qualities that I actually enjoyed more than the fighting itself. While other books and movies have introduced prozium-like drugs, this is the first time I've seen the haunting effects of them. Preston's own son is lifeless, as he is expected to be. A flashback shows the police breaking into the Preston home to arrest the wife for defying the system. The kids watch as their mother is dragged off to eventually be killed, and they stand in the hallway looking bored.
We quickly learn why Preston’s wife refused accept Libria’s code of life. While on the job, Preston catches his partner reading a book that was previously confiscated from a sense offender. But his partner doesn't hide it, even when confronted by the puzzled Preston. He is too proud of his own self-control, and would rather die than live in a world where you can't live.
As expected, something soon happens to Preston's partner, and he is replaced by Brandt (Taye Diggs), an energetic cop who seems to enjoy his job too much for someone without the ability to feel. Together, they arrest Mary O'Brien (Emily Watson), a women whose crime is that she once had a lover before he was caught and prosecuted. She is like Preston's wife and former partner, one of the few citizens who know what it is like to smile. She knows what it feels like to have emotions. She knows what it is like to feel.
Preston continues his oppressive operations with his new partner until his normal routine is broken while at home following the day of Mary’s arrest. He accidentally drops his prozium, and goes the rest of the day without the dose. He would never take the medication again. And because of it, he begins to feel. While secretly pretending to be on the level, he begins to see what he has been missing his entire life. While working at a crime scene, he would remove his glove to feel the textures of the many surfaces that he never noticed and never appreciated. We see the joy that fills his face after listening to a jazz record when his coworkers aren't around.
His senses and emotions become stronger and begin controlling his actions. There is one scene where he observes his fellow clerics shooting a pack of dogs they've found (dogs are forbidden because they make people happy). One dog escapes fire and runs toward Preston, and licks him on the nose. The expression on his face is priceless, as for the first time, we see him realizing the emotions he’s experiencing.
No longer submissive to prozium, Preston finds an underground resistance, a pack of rebels who normally become victims to Preston and his deadly unit of clerics if caught congregating or hoarding contraband. But now Preston may be the one man who can save the resistance, and help them reclaim Libria.
Christian Bale’s performance as Preston reminds me of his self-absorbed character in “American Psycho.” But in “Equilibrium,” he gets the chance to feel for other characters, although it may be too late--that I cannot tell you. Taye Diggs is static, but then so is everyone who is on prozium.
The scenery is amazing. The depressingly grey skyscrapers tower into the stratosphere over the crowded and congested city of Libria. The architecture is creepy, as no color penetrates into the city. The soundtrack is also impressive. The techno music is rather enjoyable and actually compliments the radical style. Too many films like "Ecks vs. Sever" overkill the movie with blasting beats, but "Equilibrium keeps it subtle by not allowing it to interfere with the plot.
I will be looking out for writer/director Kurt Wimmer, who has little writing under his credits. “Equilibrium” is also his first major directing job. He has succeeded in creating a wonderfully entertaining action movie with a provocative story that isn’t afraid to defy the traditional method these films are told in. Critics ask, “why so violent?” The obvious answer should be, “just because.”
The budget was obviously nowhere near that of "The Matrix," but that doesn't matter. This movie is too rich and full of original style, which is a trait independent from the budget. There are clichés that ultimately made some critics dislike the film, but that goes without saying. One complaint is the all-black leather outfits worn by the clerics. Apparently that right is now owned by the Wachowski brothers as if they were the first to incorporate the color black in their characters’ wardrobes. Wimmer isn't trying to fool anyone, but some believe he is.
Hopefully, “Equilibrium” will turn some heads when it is eventually released on video and DVD, because it won’t do any damage as a limited release for the short time it’s in theaters. It’s an exciting thriller. Preston joins an underground resistance, and will not stop until he brings down the ruling empire of Libria. Preston is ready to go to war. Are you?