Saturday, August 09, 2008
Academy of the Underrated: Equilibrium
This is one of those movies that passed me by for a while, and somehow I let myself ignore the good things I heard for many years. EQUILIBRIUM is two parts thoughtful dystopian sci-fi and one part Hong Kong gunplay film (though perhaps the ratio’s more like 3:2), and though THE MATRIX rode this kind of genre-blending to box office gold, this one kinda fell into a niche between its two target audiences. It’s got a cult audience, though, and I seem to fit into that very small shaded area on the Venn diagram of Gun Fu enthusiasts and admirers of Huxley. I liked EQUILIBRIUM quite a bit, and though it’s not developed enough to reach a level of true greatness, it’s surprisingly entertaining.
The film takes place some time after World War III, which the remnants of humanity decided was the product of mankind’s innate passions. A bunch of them have gotten together and reshaped civilization into a monochromatic authoritarian land where all manifestations of emotion are banned. Everyone takes regular drug injections to keep their mood stable, and the needlessly overnamed Tetragrammaton Council sends “clerics”- highly trained killers skilled in the art of “gun kata”- to arrest and usually kill people who insist on clinging to emotions and works of art from the old times. (Amusingly, the board of censorship regularly bans works by classing them “EC-10”, for emotional content, and I’m sure the resemblance to the MPAA ratings system is just a coincidence.)
Joseph Preston (Christian Bale) is a cleric, one of the best, but his faith is first shaken when he has to execute his longtime partner Errol Partridge (Sean Bean, dying even more quickly than usual this time around), who has been sneaking books of poetry on the side. Soon after, he accidentally misses his morning dose, and when he arrests an undrugged woman named Mary O’ Brien (Emily Watson), she gets him thinking what the point is of living without feeling. Preston starts missing dose after dose. He manages to sneak back a puppy from a resistance compound on the grounds that it might need to be tested for disease. Somehow his new partner (Taye Diggs) doesn’t seem to notice his behavior. Preston isn’t sure what he wants to do, but he does know there’s an organized underground out there somewhere.
The plot is very twisty; at any moment I expected a full-on LOGAN’S RUN scenario, with Preston being exposed as a “sense offender” and having to run to join the underground etc. Instead the film takes a more subtle approach, with Preston apparently able to conceal his emotions enough to genuinely see how he now relates to society. There are a couple of scenes where you think he’s going to pass the point of no return, but both times he’s kept back. It slows the action somewhat, but also keeps it unpredictable.
Speaking of action, much of the film’s cult reputation stems not from its intellectual ambition but from its characters’ kicking of asses and taking of names. The “gun kata” the clerics master is a particularly wild form of gunplay in which they generally stand still in the thick of fire while swiveling their guns into various positions to take advantage of optimum kill zones or something- basically it’s kung fu with pistols, and that’s awesome. Director (and writer) Kurt Wimmer doesn’t do the kind of quick-cut editing that so many other action directors fall prey to, and generally lets the action speak for itself. The fights are all visceral and just over-the-top enough to keep surprising you, and they’re a high point of the movie.
Which brings us to a weird problem. If you rent the film for the gun kata and general asskicking, you may bristle at sitting through the 66% or so of the film which deals with the philosophical problems of a world without emotion. And if you rent it for the heady intellectualism, you might bristle at the improbable kung fu sequences. It’s hard to be in quite the right frame of mind to appreciate a film which veers from high-octane action to slow contemplation. There’s a certain rhythm the picture has that does draw you in, but preconceptions can get in the way.
The tropes of dystopian fiction can get familiar if you’ve seen and/or read enough of them, and I don’t think EQUILIBRIUM can be accused of originality in this regard. You will recognize a piece here from FAHRENHEIT 451, another there from 1984 (though surveillance in this society is surprisingly low), traces of BRAVE NEW WORLD, hints of BRAZIL, a surprising amount of LOGAN’S RUN, etc. The film wears its influences on its sleeve, and to be fair I don’t think the movie is actually claiming any kind of novelty. It’s a pastiche, and the blend is just kind of lumpy.
Though parts of the film here and there are undeveloped- in particular, Emily Watson has something of a thankless and passive role- it’s a standout in a number of ways. It tells a nice dark story without getting bogged down in pretension, the performances are good, the action is thrilling, the cinematography is amazing, and on the whole it’s a nice little film that not enough people saw for some reason. I’d give it another look.
Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer