Friday, October 25, 2013

Equilibrium Review - Very Unbalanced

2002's Equilibrium is an unexpected and difficult work. I actually remember hearing the early buzz about the picture on AICN - at the time, I think it was called Lithium or some such - and I was very interested in it. If you ever read Brave New World or 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, then you understand how appealing the "future dystopia" idea is. You might have also seen this in movies like Logan's Run, The Running Man, and Escape from New York, but I think it's best to stick to literature...

It's best, because Equilibrium feels like a combination of the three novels I just mentioned. In the future of the film that Kurt Wimmer wrote and directed, all emotions are outlawed (1984), everyone takes mandatory drugs (Brave New World) that dull any and all feelings , and cops harshly crack down on any offenses, which include the possession of literature and art (Fahrenheit 451). The setting of this Christian Bale film is fleshed-out quite thoroughly, a world where humanity has been deeply, deeply changed, with limited-to-no freedom of expression or thought.

So, of course I was interested, and of course I was disappointed that the studio gave the pic a shamefully-limited release (301 theaters, at the most). I rented this the day it came out on DVD, and I simply stood back in shock. Sure, it was changed a bit from what the early releases described, but Equilibrium seemed to make one big mistake for every impressive choice that it displayed.

Above all, this was an incredibly-ambitious movie that tried to go all-out with its ideas, and that deserves praise and respect. In this case, the lead is the best super-cop out there - but rather than stopping robberies or murders, he's destroying people's poetry collections and paintings. Christian Bale's high-ranking Cleric, John Preston, kills people, he doesn't save them - and every lower-ranking officer pretty much fears him.

The reason they fear him is another odd-ass innovation on Wimmer's part: all the Clerics practice Gun-kata (I s--t you not, that's what it's called), a martial art based on (wait for this) a statistical understanding of gun-play. If 4 guys pull a gun on you and you got Gun-kata, you know the odds that the guy on your left will shoot the guy on your right if you just duck, and that thug #3 will fire blindly if you tip their gun downwards a bit. Every fight is a beautiful ballet of quick movement and gunfire, and it's f--king glorious, really.

Yet, as I noted above, the problems are legion: the world of Equilibrium is quickly established at the start, and Preston's partner, Errol Partridge (Sean Bean's most crazily-named role?) is gone before he has time to anything but set up the story. Preston then gets the incredible friction of handling his job while dealing with the ambitious #2 Cleric, Brandt. Brandt is played beautifully by Taye Diggs, and he really sells the idea that he's an emotionless officer who needs to rise up the ranks.

But, in this emotionless world, Brandt smiles all the g-d time. Taye Diggs is a fine actor - I wish he appeared in more films - and, even as a straight male, his smile is just wonderful, yet I can't understand why he cracks a grin so often. Isn't that a problem in this world? There are also many moments where everyone acts as if their IQs are like 40 or lower, but we haven't been told that's the case, so it just seems like sloppy writing. It takes a lot out of this well-filmed, interesting little story.

The general progression of the movie also jumps between clever and stunted. In short, Preston loses his partner, finds a lot of pressure at work, gets an opportunity to infiltrate the emotional underground movement (Logan's Run) - all while he runs out of meds and must decide whether he should do what he's been trained to do or learn to live like people always used to...

In short, John Preston is the most superbly-emotionless man of his era, yet he finds himself helplessly thrown onto the roller-coaster ride of coming to grips with his feelings. He saves a dog from execution (it's such an adorable dog!), learns what it's like to be a real person, and plays a game where he (and the viewer) isn't completely sure if he's joining the revolution or trying to break them.

If anything can remind a guy of his humanity, it's the noble puppy.

For all of the potential of the ideology and themes on display, Equilibrium tends to feel pretty shallow. It has these great concepts, but it doesn't really do enough with them to make it all worthwhile. It's so bad that if you're a harsh critic, you might call the whole venture silly and dumb; if you're a kinder critic, you get a sense that all of the ideas just didn't translate as well as the film-makers intended.

While I fall on the kinder side of things, I can't really recommend this pic unless you're (a) very much into action pix, or (b) want to see an ambitious failure, or (c) don't have especially high standards for how you use your time. You could spend those two hours reading a book, or seeing a movie that's truly great...


  1. Nice review. As someone who saw this in the theater, the surprise wasn't that it was given an extremely limited release, but that it ever saw a big screen at all. I don't mean that in a bad way but...this movie is batshit insane!

    Looked at in any sober fashion, the gunkata is utterly freaking ridiculous. It's like something an 8-year-old would invent. It's an utter miracle that that it kinda sorta works some of the time on film, mainly because Christian Bale sells it with utter conviction (a slightly gone-to-seed Angus MacFadyen? not so much) and the action cinematography is occasionally brilliant. The bigger miracle is that at some point someone--likely Kurt Wimmer himself, since he created it--likely demonstrated this absurd thing to a studio exec, who instead of calling security gave the director $20 million to make a film. In the exec's defense, he might've just come out of a showing of The Matrix when that happened.

    The secret ingredient that makes Equilibrium watchable is audacity. Wimmer plays the whole thing straight. That puppy shootout, in which Preston remorselessly kills at least ten men to protect a stray dog cracked the audience I saw it with up. However, in the film it's a straight-up suspense and emotional development scene. To Wimmer, the whole movie is serious sci-fi, more like Soylent Green or Rollerball than something slightly more tongue-in-cheek, like Logan's Run. (Other qualities Equilibrium shares with Logan's Run: awesome use of muzzle flare.) The fact that Equilibrium never descends into irony or in any way acknowledges its ridiculousness makes it more compelling than the standard bad film.

    1. As is so often the case, your comments are both thoughtful and hysterical. And you really hit the nail on the head - repeatedly.

      The gun-kata fights (and premise) do have the childish stupidity of something like Besson's The Fifth Element. The Matrix surely helped sell this to execs. Bale really does hold the film up with his performance.

      And, yeah, audacity is key. Not only does that help sell the whole affair, but you can see it on full display during the final moments. Societal change and revolution are going on, and all of it is both silly and stupid at the same time. Soldiers just wander into the line of fire and fall.

      If this film truly is a failure - and I think that verdict is harsh - at least it's a glorious failure. And an entertaining one, at that...

  2. I saw Equilibrium on home video,due to a friend's recommendation(it was in and out of theaters in a blink of a critic's eye,it seemed) and yes, it's not completely original and a bit over the top at times but it does have enough engaging moments to make it worth a watch or two.

    The end battle scenes alone are just simply awesome,plus for some reason I crack up when Taye Digg's character tries to call Bale out with "He is the one who is feeling!"

    1. Oh, yes, the gun-kata fights towards the end ramp up the action on a perfect blockbuster film-level. It's really an accomplishment for a lower-budget picture like this one. And smaller moments, like Sean Bean's part, the bonding with kids, and that wonderful puppy, really do hit strongly.

      Taye is a gift to this movie, both in terms of ridiculousness and for his solid work here. On the one hand, he holds up his end pretty well for a former model. For another, yes, his role is both ominous and silly, as are his constant smiles - which are useless in an unemotional word wherein charisma means nothing - as well as that great, great line you noted...


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