During COVID, I have been watching older science fiction films, whose theatrical release I might have missed. EQUILIBRIUM falls into that category. Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer, starring Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Taye Diggs and Emily Watson, this film is rated R for violence, released in 2002. You can rent it as an Amazon Prime member for 4 dollars.
I recommend this film. It’s not the most thoughtful science fiction around, but it was entertaining on a few levels.
Short Review, 4 Reasons to watch
- Christian Bale gives a nice performance
- The one idea that drives the plot does create tension and makes the audience think at least a little…(see longer review)
- Stylized fight scenes–if you like martial arts/Matrix type battles
- Tight, linear story…easy to follow (given I just watched Tenet in the theater, it’s nice to watch a film that is relatively straightforward)
Earth exists in a dystopian reality, post WWIII, led by a man the population calls Father, though the ruling powers are likely something broader than one man. These decision makers have determined that Earth will not make it through another world war and have created a rigid society for the sake of survival. Emotion is outlawed, so are all things associated with emotion, in the film’s case: art, music, nostalgia items, love/affection, sensual pleasure, pets. The ruling class gives the population a drug to dampen emotions. Most faithfully take their doses a few times a day, including Bale’s character, John Preston. Preston is called a cleric, which the audience learns is a highly trained enforcer of the government’s anti-emotion policy. He roots out the rebels and those who indulge in art of all types.
The incident that brings upheaval into Preston’s life is when his partner Partridge, played by Sean Bean, steals a poetry book they had confiscated. Preston confronts him when he catches Partridge reading Yeats for his own pleasure. He is sentenced to death, but not before he reads a few lines of poetry out loud. Soon after, Preston discovers Patridge’s lover, played by Emily Watson. When he realizes that his former partner had gone down this road toward emotions, even falling in love…it seems, he cannot go back….something in him is triggered.
The unraveling continues as Preston dreams and recalls his wife’s conviction and execution. She was caught “feeling” outside the bounds of what the society permitted. His son is a rigid rule keeper, but his daughter is obviously more emotional and possibly disturbed (who wouldn’t be in this world?). Preston stops taking the drug and begins to truly feel a lot more. His new partner, Brandt, played by Taye Diggs, begins to notice his odd behavior. In the meantime, the rebels begin to recruit Preston. They want him to kill Father.
There is a strange interaction between Preston and the leader of the rebels where the leader makes sure that Preston cannot allow himself to feel if he is going to do the job he needs to do. The leader also indicates that he himself buried his feelings. That raises an interesting question about feelings and soldiers who are called upon by society to perform a “justified” killing. The audience can see in this a reflection of Father’s maintenance of the population…Father has told his followers that they must not feel in order to perform righteously. I think the audience is supposed to ponder this and reflect on what it means to kill another human being (like killing the spirit of the person by outlawing art!), but the interaction does pass by pretty quickly and there is no further discussion on it. Moreover, many people die in this film, so if we’re supposed to feel horrible about murder/a crazy amount of killing…hmm…not sure.
There are almost zero female characters in EQUILIBRIUM, which begs the question…
Is a non-emotional world a place where women have a hard time existing? I suspect so, at least in this film world. All of the female characters who have significant screen time (which isn’t much) are in the rebel category. Even Mona Lisa cannot exist in this world. (Da Vinci’s masterpiece is destroyed in an early scene). I appreciated the Emily Watson character, but she is one among six guys who dominate every scene. I realize a lot of folks don’t care about this issue…but I like to contemplate…Does it have to be this way? Would this film say something deeper and broader about humanity if one of the hardcore cleric characters was a woman? Or maybe the filmmaker was showing us what a world might look like without women, without mothering, nurturing and emotional connection…and maybe without them…art could not exist. That is an interesting idea, but I don’t think this film quite got us there.
Good science fiction does often grapple with the question, what does it mean to be human? The equilibrium sought out by the government in this film, is tentative and only possible because of the numbing of the population through a constant intake of a drug. EQUILIBRIUM portrays characters who will forego taking the drug, are willing to die and choose to sacrifice all for the sake of feeling. Art, poetry, music, love, affection and warmth in relationships…we cannot be human without them. We cannot live without them.
For that reason, I found EQUILIBRIUM a hopeful picture of humanity. Love, creativity and expression will burst forth. It cannot be contained. It can never be fully squelched and is a hopeless task of any government to try to do so.