Equilibrium

Tagged: Film

Film (2002). Dimension Films, Blue Tulip Productions. Directed and written by Kurt Wimmer. Cast includes Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Taye Diggs, William MacFadyen, Sean Pertwee and Emily Watson. Plus one Bernese Mountain dog pup. 107 minutes. Colour.

After the devastation of World War Three, a new regime now rules Near Future America, and by the year 2072 claims to have constructed a world safe from war; as Dupont (MacFadyen) – spokesman for the "Father" (Pertwee), founder of the ruling Tetragrammaton Council – puts it in a preliminary voiceover:

Those of us who survived [the war] knew mankind could never survive a fourth; that our own volatile natures could simply no longer be risked. So we have created a new arm of the law: The Grammaton Cleric, whose sole task it is to seek out and eradicate the true source of man's inhumanity to man – his ability to feel.

The use of the word "man" here may be deliberate, as Equilibrium is suffocatingly dominated by male roles: the only woman of any importance, Mary O'Brien (Watson), an essentially passive figure, is soon arrested for having feelings and ritually incinerated. Far from being a liberator, "Father" is in fact the worshipped head of a masculinist Religion whose iconography is based on that of Hitler's Germany (as depicted here, the image of the Tetragrammaton itself is barely distinguishable from a swastika), and whose attempts to maintain social discipline almost comically (except for the unswerving humourlessness of the film) evoke memories of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). The all-male Grammaton Cleric(s), dressed in Art-Deco-ish crypto-Nazi gear, maintain Father's control over his America: here restricted (perhaps for budget reasons) to the Dystopian City-state of Libria, a New York-like megalopolis whose Fascist "urbanity" Parodies the iconic work of New York delineator Hugh Ferriss (1889-1962); Ferriss's chiaroscuro-laden visualizations of cityscapes and projected buildings were earlier significant in the crafting of DC Comics's Gotham City, and appear later in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004).

After the voiceover, the story of Libria's inevitable unravelling begins swiftly. John Preston (Bale), a top-ranking Cleric with-Superhero grade skills at the deadly martial art "gun fu" (or Gun Kata), has unfeelingly allowed his own wife to be incinerated as a "sense offender", leaving him to raise their two small children (Sex is apparently not conceived as an emotional activity). With his partner Errol Partridge (Bean) he leads a raid on a small group of resisters, art-hoarding members of the Underground, only to discover that Partridge has illegally retained and is reading a volume of poems by William Butler Yeats; he immediately shoots him dead (the loss of Bean, who is both recognizable and a competent actor, is actively missed). As for Yeats, only one poem is cited, the early "Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" (in The Wind Among the Reeds, coll 1899), whose dejected Celtic Twilight aroma accords with Equilibrium's "argument" that those feelings whose existence threatens civilization are those describable as soft, womanly, flowery, delicately sensual, kleenexy; but that more "manly" emotions, including rage, aggressiveness, sexual sadism, the fetishizing of guns (and gear and armoured cars), along with agonistic glee, peer-rivalry and power-lust in general, do not transgress against Father's vision of a world in which war is no longer possible. The selection of a 1899 poem to valorize is also consistent with the characteristic deprecation in sf cinema of anything that might reek of Modernism, indeed of any art dating after the first years of the beginning of the twentieth century, the only exemption being replicas, like the bloated reverential tchotchkes executed by the robot "artist" in Bicentennial Man (1999). Any similarities to Terry Bisson's The Pickup Artist (2001) are almost certainly unintended.

But echoes of Ray Bradbury's sentimental parable Fahrenheit 451 (1953) seem deliberate; and cinematographer Nicholas Roeg's highly rhetorical palette for the film version, Fahrenheit 451 (1966), directly influences Wimmer's attempts to distinguish visually between what men "feel" and the genuine article: men are shot in a palette so stark it could be mistaken for black-and-white, while a rosy pastel palette dominates any shot in which women or children or puppy dogs are in evidence. But this garish colour-coding only underlines what the story soon makes clear: that, after the stressful killing of his partner, Cleric Preston – who has forgotten to take his daily Prozium, an emotion-suppressant Drug, a mistake normally punishable by summary execution – is about to go rogue.

The hints are broad. A conversation with Mary O'Brien causes him to weep. He saves a Bernese Mountain Dog pup, whose dubbed whimpers and tail-wagging winsomeness (the tail is real) clearly warrant death; in order to rescue it, he must exercise his supernormal Gun Fu skills to dispose of the squad of police which has been executing forbidden dogs. (They are the first of the 134 men Preston kills off, without any visible effort, or emotion, before the film ends.) Arrested for these crimes, he pretends to DuPont that his erratic behaviour is part of a scheme to infiltrate the Underground and eradicate it for good. DuPont, inexplicably, believes this and frees Preston, who then tells the Underground to prepare for the Rising.

Equilibrium's subsequent segue into mayhem is very skilfully orchestrated, with some superb dance-like exercises in mass murder via Gun Fu, and at some points Preston's one-man demolition of the Tetragrammaton Council that has terrorized Libria almost makes some sort of dynamic sense, certainly for film goers used to movies that default to combat ballet. In any case Preston, once an invincible Antihero, has become an invincible Hero. After polishing off his 134 victims, he penetrates the Council's inner sanctum, which is full of forbidden art and other luxuries, where he discovers that Father has been dead for years, and that his demagogic Hitler-like screen image is being manipulated by DuPont to control the masses, clearly echoing the climax of The Wizard of Oz (1939) (see L Frank Baum). The Council falls apart to the sound of revolution in the streets.

It might be argued that Equilibrium's heart is in the right place. But so is the puppy dog's. [JC]

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