Fascist condemnation sci-fi for the action-oriented. The Bale-meister brings it on!
"For a man on film, there is no greater moment than the instant when he suddenly gives up everything he knows or thought he ever wanted and starts whipping ass for love or principle."
And there you have the philosophy of Kurt Wimmer, director of Equilibrium. It's patently obvious from his attitude that the man likes his action meaty, and very few of us would be inclined to disagree with him. However, as much as the trailer campaign may have marketed Equilibrium in the vein of this assumption, go in expecting a balls-to-the-wall action extravaganza and you will be disappointed, for it's much closer to Fahrenheit 451 than The Matrix.
The common perception of a Police State is that [fascism = bad], and as a political statement this movie isn't telling us anything new, so don't expect any spectacular new sociopolitical revelations. The world of Equilibrium is a middle distance future in the aftermath of World War 3 (cliche), where society has finally caved in to the notion that emotion is the root of all evil. The radical solution to this inherently human problem is to alter the nature of man itself by the application of 'Prozium' tablets; a drug taken daily that suppresses any hint of emotion. Now, ruled over by 'The Father' (Sean Pertwee) and a heavily armed State Police force, a singular society called 'Libria' exists in harmony by virtue of the fact nobody really cares about anything. Art, literature, music and personal expression of any form is banned, punishable by death. 'Ya', 'boo' and 'hiss'.
As is always the case in these cinematic renderings of Utopia, there exists an underground movement who believe that although flawed, the nature of humanity should not be repressed (the fools) and who are looking for any chance to overthrow the government and generally cause mischief. To keep these scallywags, known as 'sense-offenders' in check, a special group of enforcers have been trained, namely the Tetra-Grammaton Clerics; a unit so hard they even have their own martial art (more of which later) which allows them to kill many, many offenders in a very, very emotionless manner. The finest Cleric in town is Preston (Christian Bale), whose steely resolve is such that he barely batted an eyelid when his fellow Clerics took his wife away to be incinerated for sense crimes, and who shoots his partner point blank for reading Yeats.>
Things are going swimmingly for Preston until one morning he accidentally ruins his Prozium dose and is prevented from procuring another by a terrorist act at his local 'Equilibrium' (a Prozium pharmacy to you and I). Immediately suspicious, his new partner, Cleric Brandt (Taye Diggs), begins scrutinising his actions in the hope of making a name, and Preston finds himself sympathising with the Underground whilst harbouring a growing hatred of the system that took his wife away.
It's all very 1984, but Wimmer's vision is much more visceral than Orwell's, with all the violence and atrocity up there for everyone to see. It might be more aggressive than it's spiritual successors, but it's never gratuitously so, and what ass-kicking there is to enjoy is choreographed spectacularly well, frequently bordering on the artistic; sort of John Woo meets Swan Lake if you like. Much of the kudos for this goes to the stylish new martial art Gun-Kata, invented for the film by the director, and unfortunately not actually a viable form of combat in the real world. Schade.
Taking the two-handed gunplay of Hong Kong action flicks and combining it with the current trend for hand-to-hand martial arts disciplines, Gun-Kata sees hand weapons as natural extensions of the body. Practiced only by the Cleric, it's explained away as years of research into firefights, the discipline assuming that the probability of trajectory of return fire and the optimum positioning for retaliation are linear enough to be roughly calculable. Hence stances for avoiding said hot metal whilst dispensing projectile payback take on the form of a fighting technique, and cue lots of extremely satisfying and dazzling encounters between Preston and hordes of lesser trained Police minions. It's all very dazzling stuff, and while it doesn't employ any trendy Matrix-esque bullet time techniques or fancy effects nonsense it more than makes up the ground on merit of choreography alone.
That's not to say Equilibrium is a one trick pony, because there's a lot more to enjoy than just the flashy gunplay. Visually, the rest of the movie transcends it's low-budget origins by virtue of some great camera work and grand set design. Although plain in appearance due to the ethos of the regime, the harsh lines and flat colouring of Preston's world take on a simplistic beauty when juxtaposed with the run-down crumbling architecture of the Underground's environ.
Performance-wise you know you're onto a winner whenever Christian Bale is around. The man injects every performance with his all, even when the script isn't particularly worthy (see perhaps Reign Of Fire), but here he has something decent to play with. Wimmer's script is a techno-Shakespearean joy, fusing the kind of sentence structure we'd expect from The Bard with the joys of the modern expletive (used refreshingly sparingly, and normally by some poor enforcer seconds before meeting Gun-Kata annihilation). Bale gets to chew some wonderfully realised wordage, and the text even allows the normally banal Sean Bean to appear surprisingly less crap than usual.
There's fine support from a largely British cast, with everybody holding their end of the deal with much aplomb. British viewers will no doubt be surprised by a small cameo appearance by comedian Brian Conley, though the jury's still out on whether that's a nice or a downright scary surprise. Taye Diggs is worthy of a mention as Bale's treacherous understudy, convincing as a state brown-noser, and it's nice to see his demise in the final reel.
As much as I enjoyed Equilibrium, it does have it's faults. The most jarring for myself was it's overuse of blatant fascist and religious symbolism. I don't mind the more subtle visual clues (Bale's guns forming a cross), but I'm intelligent enough to know what kind of regime we're dealing with without having 80-foot high thinly-veiled swastikas flapping in my face, and I dare say most viewers will feel the same. Preston's change of clothing from all-black to an altogether more 'enlightened' white in the final reel is also a bit blatant, but I guess on a low budget it's an easy route to distinguishing the good guys from the bad. Some of the more intense moments of acting are a little suspect also, considering these people are supposed to be chemically cleansed of emotion. On more than one occasion Diggs and Angus MacFadyen as The Father's right hand man emote a little too much to be excusable, but then the blame must rest on Wimmer for not tightening the leash. There is of course the possibility that it's purposeful; demonstrating the intrinsically flawed nature of a purely fascist regime, but I have my doubts.
A lot of dirt has been flung at Equilibrium by other critics, chiefly because it seems a little shallow. Certainly this is true of it's central theme which has undoubtedly been covered before by several high profile films, but the point is that Wimmer has taken a bold, modern approach and introduced much that is new to what would otherwise have been a dull and largely unnecessary political statement. I for one absolutely bloody loved it. Bale is The Man, and I wont stand for anyone claiming otherwise. His commitment is obvious from the outset, and if anyone deserves the success their hard work has brought it's him. If you like cinema that's even vaguely thought-provoking and are a fan of stylistic action flicks then I suggest you immediately check out this film.
Not without incident, Craig Disko has awarded Equilibrium 4 out of 5 Happy Baguettes.
Taye Diggs (Cleric Brandt)
Emily Watson (Mary)
Angus MacFadyen (DuPont)