Sunday 24 February 2019

Movie Review: Equilibrium (2002)

A dystopian post-apocalyptic thriller, Equilibrium borrows from familiar sources but delivers a polished dose of futuristic action.

After a third and devastating world war, humanity rebuilds as Libria, a totalitarian city-state governed by the Tetragrammaton Council and led by Father, who is only seen on giant video screens. Emotions are pinpointed as the source of wars and are strictly outlawed. Citizens self-inject the chemical Prozium II at regular intervals every day to suppress all feelings. "Sense Offenders" are hunted down by paramilitary forces augmented by trained assassins known as Clerics, and either killed on sight or captured then incinerated. Resistance fighters cluster in the destroyed Nether areas outside the city's boundaries.

John Preston (Christian Bale) is the most ruthless and respected Cleric, and eliminates his partner Errol Partridge (Sean Bean) when the latter is found reading books and nurturing feelings. Preston then arrests Mary O'Brien (Emily Watson), one of the resistance leaders, and her appeals to his humanity resonate. He allows himself to skip one dose of Prozium II and starts experiencing emotions, but has to hide his secret from his new partner Andrew Brandt (Taye Diggs) as he considers his next move.

The dichotomies of love and hate, desire and repulsion, ecstasy and agony are at the core of the human condition. Equilibrium posits a provocative solution to violence, one in which the extremes at both ends are truncated by virulent authoritarianism, the loss of elation presented as a worthwhile sacrifice to eliminate warfare.

While the gloss of originality is evident, Equilibrium leans heavily on many elements made famous by George Orwell, John Woo and The Wachowskis. The film's foundation is an amalgam of concepts introduced by 1984 and the stylistic gunfights popularized by Hong Kong action movies and The Matrix

The premise of a dictatorial government attempting to exert complete control over citizens' thoughts operating out of domineering monolithic government buildings and with a mythical leader incessantly spouting mind control rhetoric is straight out of Winston Smith's reality. And the Clerics' acrobatic gun kata fighting techniques are an evolution (complete with the introduction of pseudo-scientific principles) of the hyper-stylized one-against-many exquisitely choreographed close quarter gun battles conceived by Woo.

Director and writer Kurt Wimmer is left with the challenge of assembling recognizable pieces into a fresh whole, and despite the preponderance of plot holes, he excels. Equilibrium has the sleek, icy cold and grey look of a world stripped of individuality, artistry, colour, or any other triggers of human warmth. Thanks to a subtle Christian Bale performance, the story makes the most out of the star government killer developing a conscience. With editing just on the correct side of rational, the balletic action scenes pop up at the right moments, inject the appropriate dose of energy, and never dominate the narrative.

In its contemporary context the film also takes well placed shots at an over-medicated and over-prescribed culture. Libria only functions because the citizenry acquiesces to self-administering mind-altering medication, a state of self-inflicted zombiefication less inspired by fiction than reality. When Equilibrium oscillates in the narrow range between apathetic and aloof, it's time for an old fashioned blood bath to warm things up.

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