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He’s a sense offender.

Equilibrium
(2002)

(SPOILERS) Kurt Wimmer’s dystopian sci-fi movie is a mash up of 1984, THX1138 and Fahrenheit 451, with added spangles in the form The Matrix-inspired gun kata. Wimmer objected to such reductive categorisation, claiming it had a “different message”, but I’m blowed if I can find it. Equilibrium’s mostly an effective little B-movie, though, setting out its stall and succeeding within the range of its familiar tropes.

John Preston: I’m alive… I live... To safeguard the continuity of this great society. To serve Libria.

Wimmer has mostly won work as a screenwriter, although he would doubtless rather be a full-time director. The failure of his follow up feature (an adaptation of BBC vampire serial Ultraviolet) appears to have put paid to that (his recent Children of the Corn prequel seems to be in limbo). His writing credits are very variable too, however, sharing duties on the likes of Sphere, The Thomas Crown Affair remake, The Recruit and Street Kings. Law Abiding Citizen, a grisly revenger, is all him, as are Salt and the dreadful Point Break remake. Checking in on his career at this earlier point, though, you’d be inclined to credit him with promise and his directorial chops as having potential; his low-angled take on Berlin architecture makes for an effective low-budget design base, and the gun kata action is variable but at times musters something of its own bullet-time-derived flavour that was so in vogue at the time.

Libria has arisen from the ashes of WWIII – you know it was “nuclear”, owing to newsreel proof via de rigueur lava-lamp-induced mushroom clouds – and mindful of the tumult, death and destruction, this new society has put the dampeners on any human emotion with the drug Prozium II; “society has embraced” these daily doses, because it means “At last, peace reigns in the heart of man”; “Now we are at peace with ourselves and humankind is as one”. Accompanying propaganda broadcasts from Father (Sean Pertwee, who doesn’t get killed here for a change because, well, he isn’t alive) testify to this, as does the role of The Grammaton Cleric: “To seek out and eradicate the true source of man’s inhumanity to man. His ability to feel”.

John Preston: Tetragrammaton. There’s nothing we can’t do.

One such is everyone’s favourite grimacer Christian Bale. John Preston is a top-drawer operative, whose wife was “arrested and incinerated for sense offence four years ago”. He has two children, one of whom, Robbie (Matthew Harbour), is very resonant of Winston Smith’s neighbour’s snitch kid in 1984 (it’s a good performance from Harbour, particularly so since we discover later he has been off the Prozium for years). John is put onto the path of realisation after terminating fellow cleric Partridge (Sean Bean, in an extra brief role prior to inevitably dying), but must deal with the keen interest of another cleric, Brandt (Taye Diggs), scrutinising his emotional state while John in turn finds himself fascinated by sense offender Mary O’Brien (Emily Watson).

John Preston: There’s no war No murder.
Partridge: What is it you think that we do?

There’s the usual paraphernalia of discovering invaluable high art and wells of emotion in Wimmer’s vision, be it poetry (Yeats) or music (Beethoven’s Ninth). There’s also an inconsistent thematic track with regard to the actual suppression and display of emotion that is never quite satisfyingly dealt with. One might put it down to Partridge’s early analysis of John saying he is sorry – “A vestigial word for a feeling you’ve never felt” – but it still doesn’t explain why Brandt is smiling constantly. John has a capacity above and beyond the effects of the Prozium – sometimes he knows what a person’s feeling before they know it themselves – yet this is seen as a positive, not something to be further supressed. Official Dupont (Angus Macfadyen) is regularly found raising his voice and ranting, which makes sense when you realise he’s not on the Prozium either (typical Elite, not taking getting their shots), but you’d have thought his very obvious sense offender behaviour would have been called out before now.

John Preston: Sir… without the logic of process, is it not mayhem, what we have worked so hard to eradicate?

Bale is typically Bale-ish, moody and hatchet faced, but it’s one of his better “star” turns (generally, from Terminator Salvation to Public Enemies to Exodus, those type of “straight” roles expose his limitations as a classic lead. He doesn’t boast an iota of warmth or empathic charisma). He’s obviously good with the physicality, and he gets an appealing line of development when, in order to save his adorable puppy, he slaughters a dozen people; obviously, we’re all fully behind his ultra-violence! Diggs makes for a decent-enough antagonist, even if, as mentioned, Wimmer should have instructed him to put a lid on the grinning, but Watson – lacking allure – and Macfadyen – unconvincing as a suddenly deft gun kata guy – aren’t quite right. David Hemmings, Dominic Purcell and William Fichtner (always good, even in a nothing part like here) all appear. As, bafflingly, does Brian Connelly.

The design aesthetic is low key and austere, so familiar but also fitting, and there’s both sympathetic costume design and choreography. Airships haunt the skies and a prominent Atlas holds up a glowing globe, serving to emphasis both propaganda and prospects of old tech rekindled. Elsewhere, the sealed up and underground furnishings and relics make an effective glimpse into the rejectamenta of a reset society.

Wimmer wanted the gun kata more fluid than his stunt guy delivered, but it works fine; I especially like the – apparently through necessity of scheduling – truncated showdown with Brandt, serving as it does to emphasise John’s superior skill set. I think there are probably one too many twists in the final reel – the double bluff to make John feel he’s won – as it comes across as slightly desperate rather than genuinely clever plotting. And Equilibrium is inevitably a Hollywood take on how easy it is to topple an authoritarian society. For all that the leader isn’t who you think he is, that revealed leader should in no way be at the top of the totem (and in common with other future tenses, your left wondering how the events we see affect the rest of the world).

DuPont: You must understand, Preston, that while you – and even I – may not always agree with it, it is not the message that is important. It is our obedience to it.

I think the verdict at the time – that if it weren’t for the gun kata, there’d be little to make Equilibrium stand out from the average Orwellian dystopia – is a fair one. But it notably gives us dour Bale as he means to go on, Bean getting shot in the brain and the recognition that Diggs was once an up and comer (another actor one loses track of once they become submerged in long-running TV shows). And Wimmer may not have much in the tank as a director – Ultraviolet was commonly derided as ineptly realised – but he had potential here to suggest he could have been much more interesting than, say, a David Ayer (whom he has found himself jobbing for).


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