George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four defined the dystopian genre1. It became one of the greatest fictional examples of a totalitarian government ruling through fear and force, permeating every last aspect of its citizens’ lives, and it tackled complex themes about individuality, resistance, and even the nature of reality itself. Altogether, the book is a timeless classic, a well of ideas for generations of writers to draw from—myself included.
In 2000, director Kurt Wimmer asked the question: what if Nineteen Eighty-Four had guns? Like, a lot of guns?
Equilibrium was the result.
This $20 million film was released in 2002, to rather poor reviews. Critics decried its supposedly derivative ideas and aesthetics, comparing it to Nineteen Eighty-Four (obviously), Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and apparently The Matrix, and the Rotten Tomatoes summary calls it “a reheated mishmash of other sci-fi movies.” My response is: and? As I said on this blog a long time ago, when I did my review of Michael Moreci’s Black Star Renegades, derivative is not bad—especially when it’s as much of a sheer visual spectacle as Equilibrium. Some spoilers ahead, as I discuss this underrated gem!
It is sometime in the future—it’s unclear exactly when or where the story takes place. The opening narration explains, though, that a third world war occurred in the early years of the 21st century, and from the ashes of global civilization emerged the new state of Libria—a society where emotion itself is outlawed, to ensure a lasting peace for all mankind. Art is put to the torch and so-called “sense offenders” are put to death. Any tendencies towards feeling and sentimentality are suppressed by a state-mandated drug called Prozium. The leader of this glorious new world is an enigmatic man known only as Father, played by Sean Pertwee (who’d had a role in another sci-fi cult classic, Event Horizon, just a few years before). His enforcers are the Tetragrammaton Clerics—elite warriors trained in the art of Gun Kata, which is the application of martial arts and mathematics to gun combat, a supposedly unstoppable combination.
Our hero, John Preston (Christian Bale), is one such Cleric. With his partner Errol Partridge (Sean Bean), he travels into the derelict Nether surrounding Libria and hunts down sense offenders who, among other things, hoard paintings. An opening action sequence depicts Preston utterly massacring those sense offenders in a flurry of muzzle flashes so kinetic that I cannot adequately represent it through screenshots (epileptics beware). It’s pretty ridiculous, but it also shows off the idea of Gun Kata pretty well.
Sean Bean, of course, dies shortly afterwards—it’s a cinematic law of nature at this point, unless the movie is Troy, in which he plays Odysseus and is one of the only characters to survive to the end. But anyway. Preston discovers that Partridge is guilty of reading English poetry, so he tracks him down and kills him in an abandoned cathedral in the Nether.
Shortly afterwards, Preston accidentally drops his daily dose of Prozium. Bureaucratic difficulties—endemic to these sorts of societies—prevent him from getting another, and so he goes without, experiencing an awakening of long-suppressed emotions as a result. He even remembers his dead wife, who was executed for sense offense some years before. Nevertheless, he keeps up the façade of conformity as he continues to brutally crush opposition, working closely with his new partner, a zealous cleric named Brandt. There are many, many gunfights.
In the process of upholding law and order in Libria, Preston arrests and interrogates sense offender Mary O’Brien (Emily Watson), who further undermines his belief in the government’s ideology. Quickly, Preston’s defiance escalates; he deliberately spares a group of insurgents, and even smuggles home a puppy dog that was supposed to be exterminated.
This brings him into conflict with the authorities, as he attempts to hide the fact that he himself is now an enemy of Libria, and he soon makes contact with the Underground, a band of guerrillas who quite literally have a base in the ground beneath the Librian capital. Their plan is to overthrow the Tetragrammaton Council, and enable free thought and feeling once again. All this leads Preston into a final confrontation with the regime he once faithfully served…
As the critics pointed out, Equilibrium doesn’t tread terribly new ground, though I maintain that the setting still has its own distinct feel and questions of emotion versus reason are explored intelligently. Furthermore, any number of aspects of it are implausible and the fight scenes are sometimes laughable, with the regime’s faceless mooks often doing nothing to react to their own imminent demise. Yet… buried beneath all the flashy cinematography, and the ridiculously choreographed action sequences, and the constant chattering of automatic weapons, there is an entertaining and surprisingly thoughtful movie. Also, it’s got a bombin’ soundtrack by none other than Klaus Badelt of Pirates of the Caribbean fame, so there’s that.
Overall? This is a fine film, a real sci-fi and dystopian treasure. Highly recommended!
- Well, both Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World came earlier, but they’re not as interesting and so I’m not going to mention them.