Film Review: Inject Your Dose of Equilibrium
by Ari Armstrong, December 11, 2002
Forget about Star Trek and Lord of the Rings. Bond? Shaken or stirred, hopelessly trivial. The must-see film is Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium, a dystopian mix of Bradbury, Orwell, and Huxley couched in Matrix-like action. Wimmer, who wrote and directed the movie, gleans the best features of earlier works, and he ably synthesizes them with his original perspectives for a film that speaks to today's world.
Walking into the theater, I was both hopeful and skeptical. Hopeful because it seemed like it might be a good anti-authoritarian yarn. Skeptical, because the film is sold as something that extols "feeling" and "passion." It could have ended up as mushy-headed melodrama.
True, the story is set in the near future, after WWIII, when the state forcibly drugs the entire (legal) population in order to deaden emotions. But the point is not the simplistic one that we ought to be controlled by our feelings or such nonsense. Romantic philosophy is not the ideal. Instead, the state controls the population by constantly pumping out propaganda that war and violence can be curbed only by wiping out feelings, along with art and literature. Clearly, the film relates, such totalitarian measures only perpetuate violence.
The primary clash is between individualism and collectivism, the notion that each person is an end in him or herself and appropriately pursues his or her own happiness, and the theory that the individual exists only to further the interests of the state. In Equilibrium, the side of "feelings" -- the side that promotes painting, music, and literature -- is the side of the sovereign individual.
"The god has many names," Rose Wilder Lane wrote in her 1943 critique of authority. The state-as-god has been a recurring theme of libertarian criticism. In Equilibrium, the dictator is known simply as "Father." Those who burn and murder in the name of the state are known as "clerics." The film explicitly invokes the "opiate of the masses." Statism can be a religion, too.
The radical, militant Muslims, such as those who murdered several thousand people a year ago September 11, also want to stamp out pop music, secular art, and the life devoted to personal happiness. Millions of people live something like the horrors depicted in Equilibrium every day. Several hundred years ago, the Christian world too suffered gruesome oppression. In their authoritarian versions, these religions have given rise to men rather similar to Wimmer's "Father."
Its religious theme is not Equilibrium's only sharp edge. WWIII leads to totalitarian rule. "War is the health of the state." We do well to remember that as Junior Bush beats the drums of war. The black-masked Nazi-esque storm troopers in Equilibrium already exist in the United States, even if they are not as prevalent -- they work for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and other state agencies. Mostly they came about through another war -- the "war on drugs" (and the resulting war on gun owners). Homeland Security, nationalized identification databases, and the ridiculously named PATRIOT Act may eventually lead to the unleashing of more such agents against American citizens.
I'll let my blood cool a bit and return to the plot. A head "cleric," John Preston, portrayed by an excellent Christian Bale, stops taking his drugs. He begins to experience emotions again. He begins to remember his wife, murdered for "sense" crimes (really types of thought crimes). He begins to regret the fact that he shot his partner through the throat for reading Yeats. He even begins to dream about taking down the repressive regime. It is the parallels to 1984 that wrench the guts.
The action sequences are put together well, even if they often seem fantastic. But the action shouldn't be taken too literally. The single rebel against the evil dictator in violent confrontation doesn't happen in real life, but it makes for good metaphor. (Similarly, the master Tolkien uses the ring as metaphor, and, like Wimmer, weaves together the threads from many earlier legends.)
The other actors also do a fine job. Angus MacFadyen has a little trouble maintaining character near the end with his incredulous "o-shit" faces. Sean Bean as Preston's friend does well, and Matthew Harbour deserves special recognition as Preston's chillingly assimilated son.
Okay, after you go see Equilibrium at least once, I suppose you can follow up with the clones and the Hobbits. Perhaps even a martini. Equilibrium is not the grand, sweeping saga Tolkien's books have become. But it artfully takes up the important task of assuring art per se, and the freedom to pursue happiness as self-governing individuals, will still be revered in 2084.
I saw Equilibrium for the second time December 14, four days after I saw it the first time, and my evaluation of it went up considerably. Obviously any film loses part of its suspense the second time through, but I was able to pay more attention to the symbolism and ideas presented in it. I am more convinced than ever those who gave the film a negative review fundamentally don't have a clue what they're talking about. (Thankfully, the film got "two thumbs up.")
Here I talk more about the ideas presented in the film. I suggest you read no further until you see it first.
The film clearly suggests emotions -- the ability to "feel" -- are what make life worth living, yet they are also the source of violence and war. At some level, this is clearly true. The joy of art, the intensity of romantic love, the pleasures of a touch or the sight of a sunrise, the fascination of a great idea -- these are the things we live for. "Crimes of passion" such as murder, domestic violence, and assault generally involve uncontrolled emotions.
I do not want to grant, however, that an emotionally aware person is thereby at risk of falling into aggressive (i.e., non-defensive) violence. The propaganda coming from "Father" clearly indicates that's the problem. Yet that's not the basic message of Equilibrium. The simple fact the message is state propaganda renders it suspect.
True, in Equilibrium murder and war among the civilian population have been wiped out. Of course, they have been replaced by state-sponsored murder and terror. Thus, the film points out the real purpose of deadening people's emotions is to perpetuate state oppression.
And Equilibrium presents feeling people as calm, rational, and purposeful. For example, when Preston first meets the underground resistance, we are greeted by content people going about their business. We never get the impression the resisters are in danger of becoming emotionally out of control -- instead we see people who have appropriately integrated their emotions and their intellects.
War, though, is not caused primarily by out-of-control emotions. It is instead caused by economics, failures of diplomacy, and ideology. For instance, it is true the Nazis directed irrational hatred and bigotry toward Jews and others. This was caused, though, by faulty philosophical premises that led to nationalistic zeal. The core problem, in other words, was intellectual, not emotional. The intellect generally sets the parameters for emotional response. This is an issue Equilibrium doesn't address.
Thus, I left my second screening with the impression that Wimmer understands at a gut level what are the important philosophical issues, but he was not quite able to articulate these issues within his film. He reaches a pretty good explicit approximation of the truth, and any shortcoming is remedied by the details.
A couple other notes about details. There is a reference, from the state's perspective, to the "revolutionary" development of hate crimes. I think this is a critique of hate crimes as a prototype of thought crimes (and thus of "sense crimes"), though I'm not entirely sure.
One reviewer thought it offputting the Mona Lisa was found and burned by the cleric. This reviewer thought that painting was selected merely because it is widely recognized. But I think it was also selected because of the famous debates about the meaning of the lady's smile. This emotional ambiguity is displayed against that of Preston's partner. This is just a little example that shows, I think, that Wimmer is quite a bit smarter than many of his reviewers.
On a personal level, Equilibrium impacted me more deeply than any other film in recent memory. I have to think back to films like Blade Runner and Ashes and Diamonds to come up with a movie I connected with on so many levels. True, there are a few minor plot problems (what is Father's motivation to bring him up for a meeting at the end?), but any movie that treats ideas and symbols seriously these days is a find, and one that pulls off a a serious treatment of life's most fundamental questions in the context of a gripping story is a rare jewell.
Okay, so my original opening about Trek and Lord was mostly intended to get attention. I did go see the second Lord of the Rings (LOTR) film at its first midnight showing (it is December 19 as I write). I also eagerly went to view the latest Trek. Still, I really believe Equilibrium is the superior film, perhaps the best film I've seen this year.
That is not at all to downplay the significance of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien's story is obviously one of the all-time classics. Technically, the films rival any ever made. The mostly digital Gollum is as real and believable as any of the other characters. The talking trees are equally well-done. The war scenes are epic in scope. The acting is consistently superb.
Yet The Two Towers did not rip open my consciousness and leave me trembling the way Equilibrium did. Perhaps that's because I've already "got" its themes. Struggle to do what's right. Don't get caught up with power. Honor your friends. Those are all key concepts to a moral life, and they are vividly manifest through Tolkien's story.
The Rings films provoke deep emotions, don't mistake my point. But it's rather like the currents of a deep river, compared to the raging and gnashing of Equilibrium. Perhaps one reason LOTR is easier to take is that Sauron is a traditional, understandable enemy, like Saddam Hussein on steroids. We don't like Saddam, and we basically know how to deal with him. Sauron can be defeated, as long as Frodo destroys the Ring and the humans whip his armies.
Equilibrium, on the other hand, involves an enemy from within. It's a more insidious, less comprehensible, creepier form of evil. Sure, Sauron sees a lot with his great eye, but at least he doesn't try to make you believe the eye is there to watch out for your best interests.
The Westword ridiculously asserts Equilibrium is an "adolescent" film, without bothering to offer a shred of justification for the point. But Equilibrium takes on a more sophisticated kind of evil. LOTR: bad guy wants to take over the planet. Well, fine -- let's kick his ass.
The Nazis do not chill our souls merely because they tried to take over Europe. They haunt our dreams because they were sick psychotic bastards. That kind of mass hysteria, mass scape-goating, mass murder is difficult to deal with intellectually. The desire for power is comprehensible, the concentration camps are not. Sauron is evil because he is motivated by power. At least he hates everybody, and he has no illusions about his nature. He doesn't make propaganda films to convince people he's really their friend.
Sauron is an obvious sort of evil. Yes, Father in Equilibrium is also obviously evil to us -- but the point is that he's revered by many of his own victims. That is the really scary problem. On a personal level, how does an individual get to the point where hurting others seems like an okay thing to do? On a societal level, how does a culture come to institutionalize evil yet believe it is for the best? I think the main reason Equilibrium was so much more impactful for me emotionally is that it deals with problems I find more important.
There is also the fact that, as a kid, I HATED the ending of 1984. It really irritated me. It pissed me off. So Equilibrium pulled up all these old fears and frustrations, and then it vindicated my childhood hopes. Two plus two is FOUR, damn it all! Victory!
Gregory Weinkauf of Westword also writes, "Unfortunately, from the slick stunts to the puzzling motivations (Preston takes his biggest risk to save a dog), it's also hard to take this as seriously as Wimmer clearly intended." As I began to explain above, the "slick stunts" in Equilibrium are roughly analogous to, say, the talking trees in LOTR. Are we supposed to take "seriously" the Ring of Power, Gandalf's magic, or warrior-trees? I suspect not. Is this a shortcoming of the story? Obviously not. So why does Wimmer get slammed for injecting a little fantasy, used as metaphor?
The comment about the puppy is also totally off base. Yes, Preston creates risks for himself by saving a dog. As outside observers, it seems silly for him to risk his life over a dog, when his human friends (and he himself) are in so much danger. But Weinkauf misses the point entirely. Preston has repressed his emotions his whole life. He watched his own wife burn to death without wincing. It's a difficult path to return to a human existence. The puppy scenes work very well to illustrate the renewal of empathy. Saving the puppy becomes Preston's line in the sand. I mean, for God's sake, Weinkauf, haven't you ever held a puppy?
I truly enjoyed the Trek film, but it's not the sort of thing that will haunt me five years from now. I suspect I'll slip in my Equilibrium disc every couple years till I'm dead. Trek plays on the very interesting notion of genetic determinism versus free will, but in kind of a ho-hum sort of way. What really bugs me is that the Romulans initially support the bad guy, then they turn on him and become good guys, in a way that doesn't seem at all convincing.
I know the popular view is that the latest Trek is much better than Insurrection, but actually I enjoyed the previous installment more. Okay, the anti-technology sentiments got my eyes rolling. But it was humorous and the friendships between the spacers and the locals were compelling. I especially enjoyed the theme: the notion that it's wrong to violate people's property rights on the pretext that doing so benefits others. The I thing I most love about Trek is that the captains always stand up to authority when that authority is in the wrong.
So go see LOTR and Start Trek, if you haven't already. But for a film with adult themes and the ability to slice open your emotions, go see Equilibrium.