In a world where all forms of emotion are outlawed, a hero will rise. Sean Bean will die. (Oops, spoiler.) Also, there’s a puppy.
I am talking, of course, about Equilbrium, the best bad movie ever made. It’s better than the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle The Quest. It’s better than Wild Things. And yes, it’s even better than Starship Troopers. In fact, like Starship Troopers, it’s full of portentous overacting and solemn pronouncements; like The Quest, it contains brilliantly choreographed, physics-defying fight scenes; and like Wild Things, the plot is kind of questionable. On the other hand, unlike Starship Troopers, it’s packed with really good actors; unlike The Quest, it’s obvious that at least some thought went into the script; unlike Wild Things, there’s no champagne-drenched lesbian action. But I guess you can’t have everything.
As the movie begins, a solemn voiceover informs us that after World War III, those remnants of humanity who survived decided to outlaw all forms of human emotion, reasoning that anger leads to hate and hate leads to the Dark Side, etc. All citizens of Libria (where our tale is set) take regular “intervals” of the drug Prozium, which deadens emotion (except for loyalty and ambition, evidently, but we’ll get to that). Individuals who choose to stop taking their intervals are branded “Sense Offenders” and summarily sentenced to death by incineration. Possession of any work of art or literature, engaging in romantic assignations, owning a pet, or indeed demonstration by word or deed of any feeling of any sort will get you arrested and executed by the Grammaton Clerics, the special arm of the law dedicated to rooting out and eliminating Sense Offenders.
The most ruthlessly effective Cleric of them all is John Preston (Christian Bale), who is so badass that he observed the arrest of his own wife for sense offenses without blinking an eye. Preston’s cool competence has evidently caught the eye of Father (Sean Pertwee), Libria’s enigmatic ruler, and Father’s factotum and spokesperson, DuPont (Angus Macfadyen), and he’s widely understood to be destined for greatness within the regime.
But one fateful day, Preston and his partner, Partridge (Sean Bean), bust a nest of Sense Offenders (their haul, which is quickly torched, includes the Mona Lisa), and Partridge reacts to the find with what almost looks like regret. Preston immediately intuits that Partridge is a Sense Offender and promptly executes him. (Yes, Sean Bean dies, and yes, he’s actually not the villain here. Go figure.) But the next day, the vial containing Preston’s morning interval accidentally shatters, and a chance meeting with Partridge’s sense-offending lover, Mary O’Brien (Emily Watson), leads him to quit Prozium cold turkey. Before long, he’s experiencing emotion for the first time – and invoking the wariest of side-eyes from his new partner, the ambitious Brandt (Taye Diggs). Will Preston live long enough to become the hero that the Resistance has always needed?
Look, on the face of things, this movie is ridiculous. Ambition, which is expressed by both Preston and Brandt to varying degrees, is an emotion. You feel it. Likewise for loyalty. And in addition to being really, really goofy, it’s also so, so serious. The dialogue is uttered with a deeply sober intensity. The symbol of the Tetragrammaton (the seat of the Librian government) looks like the first draft of the swastika, and the set decoration is monochromatic, bleak, and evocative of Soviet-era architectural design. Even the soundtrack, which is heavy on fevered choruses, sounds like the Catholic High Mass. Kurt Wimmer would like you to know that he opposes oppression in all its forms.
And then there are the gun katas.
What are the gun katas, I hear you ask? We’ll let DuPont explain:
The gun katas. Through analysis of thousands of recorded gunfights, the Cleric has determined that the geometric distribution of antagonists in any gun battle is a statistically predictable element. The gun kata treats the gun as a total weapon, each fluid position representing a maximum kill zone, inflicting maximum damage on the maximum number of opponents while keeping the defender clear of the statistically traditional trajectories of return fire. By the rote mastery of this art, your firing efficiency will rise by no less than 120%. The difference of a 63% increase to lethal proficiency makes the master of the gun katas an adversary not to be taken lightly.
No, that passage really doesn’t make any sense, does it? In practice, what it means is that a master of the gun katas (usually a Cleric) can walk into a pitch-dark room full of Sense Offenders, gunfire will be exchanged, the lights will mysteriously flicker back on as though the Cleric himself willed it, and the Cleric will found be standing alone, untouched, surrounded by bodies (whose only obvious injury is a thin stream of blood trickling artistically from their noses), and glowering menacingly into the far distance. In outdoor situations, when the lights cannot be conveniently extinguished, the Cleric will surround himself with opponents, who will obligingly wait to attack until he strikes a pose reminiscent of T’ai Chi with firearms. Once the battle is met, the Cleric will then proceed to engage in all sorts of impressive acrobatics while taking out the bad guys.
(Have you ever blown an opponent away while back-flipping over the back of a car? John Preston has. Seriously, if this Cleric gig doesn’t work out, there’s a spot for him in Cirque du Soleil.)
Do I even need to tell you how deeply, ridiculously awesome all this is? The first time I saw Equilibrium, I shrieked with delight during the gunfight scenes. The second time, I jumped up and down and clapped my hands. And I am a profoundly nonviolent person. It’s all so self-serious, yet so…insane. There’s a scene at the end where Preston, clad entirely in white, is walking through a building, swinging his arms back and forth while shooting out computer monitors, and you have to wonder how Bale kept a straight face long enough to get a usable take. It’s utterly nonsensical. And it’s utterly sublime.
It’s utterly nonsensical. And it’s utterly sublime.
There’s another, shallower reason to enjoy the hell out of this movie. Specifically, this is one of the prettiest casts I’ve ever encountered. Oh, the eye candy. You have Christian Bale with his thousand-yard stare and abs of steel; a clean-cut, poetry-spouting Sean Bean; William Fichtner (as the leader of the resistance) with those big sad eyes; Taye Diggs with his million megawatt smile; Angus Macfadyen with that adorable accent that must and will peek through; and Emily Watson with her porcelain skin, saucer eyes, and wild sex hair. I’ll take one of EACH, please.
In short, there isn’t a single aspect of Equilibrium that is remotely believable, from the world-building to the characterization to the dialogue to the plot. It’s too serious by half, and even the music is over the top. Objectively, it’s a terrible movie. Subjectively, I not-so-secretly adore it. God (or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or whoever) bless Kurt Wimmer, God/FSM bless Christian Bale, and God/FSM bless Netflix, where it is streaming RIGHT NOW.
Reader: without hesitation, go watch, and know the wonder that is Equilibrium.
Dystopia | R | 107 minutes
Written by Kurt Wimmer | Directed by: Kurt Wimmer
Starring Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Taye Diggs, Angus Macfadyen, William Fichtner, Emily Watson