Equilibrium is set in an unnamed American city sometime after the apocalyptic Third World War of the 21st century. The remaining humans live in a society without violence and war because, under the control of ‘Father’ (Sean Pertwee), they must live without emotion. Forced to take the drug Prozium (the name clearly a mix of two 20th century favourites, Prozac and Opium) at daily intervals, the populous walk around the city like drones, each performing their specified tasks. There is, of course, an underground of ‘sense offenders’ who are attempting to overthrow Father and bring back emotions.
Our hero is John Preston (Christian Bale) one of the ‘Clerics’ who form the elite of Father’s security force, trained to an invincible degree in martial arts and armed combat. His main job is to exterminate sense offenders and banned ‘sense items’ which include any art, literature, and decorative items. However, when Preston accidentally misses a dose of Prozium he begins to experience emotions for the first time in his life, and begins to understand the sense offenders’ plight. He finds himself drawn to Mary (Emily Watson) who is to be executed for her offences, and eventually drawn to the underground movement itself. All the time he is under the watchful eye of his superiors, his ultra competitive partner Brandt (Taye Diggs) and even his young son, to whom the merest sign of emotion would indicate his guilt.
Equilibrium is not an original film. It shares significant narrative similarities with Blade Runner (1982), Minority Report (2002), The Matrix (1999), Metropolis (2001) and even Demolition Man (1993) and Judge Dredd (1995). It is, therefore, a genre film, and chooses to emphasise rather than deny its heritage: ‘Father’ is more than a nod to George Orwell’s Big Brother. The society that Kurt Wimmer creates is also reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, where human urges and emotions are sacrificed in order to establish a perfectly structured society. This specific form of dystopian literature from the 1930s and 40s has found a special place in modern mainstream cinema. Equilibrium in many ways is simply an amalgam of all that has come before it: the city closely resembles Metropolis, Preston often acts like Neo’s long-lost brother and the underground rebels are surely the same extras they used in Demolition Man. Yet although it moves along the expected lines for most of the film, Wimmer de-rails it at certain points to keep us guessing. The final half hour twists and turns to balletic proportions, teasing and playing with our generic expectations. Characters who are supposed to be bad turn good and vice-versa, and the final showdown is built-up like a Tyson fight; it’s on, it’s off, it’s on again… Wimmer manages all this to great effect, pushing the genre buttons with one hand while pulling the rug out from under us with the other.
Christian Bale gives a strong performance and convinces both as the invincible Cleric and a man struggling with new found emotions. We also get a sense of the complexity of the societal structures without being too overwhelmed by detail, and the all-important special effects of the cityscape are very impressive. However, subtlety is often discarded in favour of the sledgehammer approach: the propaganda films shown as reminders of the past horrors of humanity feature Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussain, the best known of many 20th century dictators, with Saddam only earning his place due to contemporary events (remember Pol Pot, anyone?). Also, the significance of burning paintings as ‘sense objects’ is clear enough without one being the Mona Lisa, and similarly when John first experiences emotive music it is, predictably, Beethoven. There is even a nauseating scene in which Preston saves a puppy.
In light of present world events it is especially interesting to see a film in which the crux of the narrative is fighting for ‘our way of life’ against an oppressive totalitarian state. The concept of free speech, such a burning issue in America at the moment, is also fundamental to the plight of the underground movement and to Preston’s character reversal. And, unlike most modern science fiction, it is blessed with good acting and an intelligent script. Don’t go to see Equilibrium expecting any breathtaking originality, but do expect an undemanding and enjoyable genre flick.