By Nick Nunziata
You have to see this film.
As much as Hollywood likes to focus on yesterday, it's tomorrow that poses the most fertile ground for storylines. Painting a picture of the world as a better, less restrained place isn't all that fun (unless you enjoy post-apocalyptic wastelands) so filmmakers tend to focus on the oppressive Orwellian stuff.
Fine by me, and fine by you judging from the robust business being done by science fiction films and novels since mankind realized that there are books around that don't feature psalms and whatnot. Using similar themes as stories as diverse as Brave New World, Gattaca, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984, the upcoming Dimension Films release Equilibrium knows what's interesting in science fiction and action and takes it for a wonderful drive around the block.
The film people are going to compare this movie to first and foremost will be The Matrix, because it's fresh on the mind and also featured some of the same themes and some showstopping action scenes.
As much as I love The Matrix, I think this film deserves a little more credit than being considered a story in the same vein. It's a less showy, more cerebral film.
We're always shoehorned into summing films up by using other films as references, and more often than not it's unfair to the film we're trying to describe. All films (well, except maybe for Being John Malkovich and The Dark Backward) are amalgams of whatever inspired its author. Star Wars drew upon the work of Kurosawa, E.E. "Doc" Smith, and others while Spielberg gained inspiration from David Lean. It's a circle, and Equilibrium is no exception. You can feel the roots of some of the classic science fiction stories making up the foundation of this film, but Kurt Wimmer's movie does something few films achieve, let alone aspire to.
It shows us stuff we've never seen before.
Honestly, when was the last time a film actually made you look at your friends and go "Did I just see that?". The 2nd time I saw this film I didn't get to enjoy some of my favorite scenes just because I wanted to watch my gang's reactions just to make sure I wasn't alone in my surprise. They responded louder and bigger than I did, and it was then that everything about Equilibrium clicked for me. In addition to some of the fresh ideas, it also challenges us to think a little more than the average flick and I find it incredibly surprising that two of the best recent films I've seen are being released by Dimension (well, if your definition of "release" leaves room for the imagination). The other film was Below, and while guys like me are often yelling to the sky for some damn good films to talk about... it's nice to spend some time writing about something truly positive and hop off our digital soapboxes.
This a refreshingly smart and robust film with some of the coolest action scenes you will ever see. No kidding, and what makes this film even more special is the lack of wires, bullet time, or any other tired recent action trends. Instead, like the best films from the East it's all about physical performance, timing, editing, and inventive use of the frame. When it boils down, that has so much more weight than high end special FX techniques.
The premise is this:
In the not-too-distant future (I've avoided use of the word Dystopian this far, and I'm fighting the urge) mankind has become a race of self medicating drones who live their lives under constant supervision. The advent of the drug Prozium has helped erase war, murder, and all of the other things that the oppressive powers that be determine is forbidden and each member of society injects the drug to suppress their moods and stave off that hideous thing known as emotion.
Their enemies are known as "Sense Offenders", people who feel and take in music and art into their lives not unlike you or I (except they probably don't have the unhealthy love for Deep Rising like I do) do. However, where you or I get a little satisfaction or entertainment, these people are rewarded with hot, blazing DEATH.
In the film's opening scene we get to see just how this new society works when the highest ranking enforcement officials arrive. They are called Clerics, and they do nothing short of kick ass.
Holed up in an abandoned building outside the safety of the newly constructed city of Libria where the iconic "Father" rules over all, a handful of sense offenders have the upper hand against Libria's first line of defense...
Until a car pulls up and Clerics Preston and Partridge (Christian Bale and Sean Bean) step out. From the first time we see them, it's obvious that they mean business. Quiet, impeccably dressed, and looked at in awe by the lower ranking officers, they enter the building during a break in the gunfire.
After asking the troops to knock the lights out in the room where the sense offenders have holed up, Preston goes in alone and five minutes into Equilibrium we are treated to a unique and utterly cool and artistic sequence that should justify the admission price alone.
As cool as that scene is, it's probably the 5th coolest action sequence in the film.
Speaking of action, it's action that's going to get people in the theater (if the film is marketed, HINT HINT) so I have to emphasize that aspect of the film. It's not an action film, but it's the handful of amazing demonstrations of Gun-Kata that will get them in the door even though a lot of the other scenes may end up being people's favorites over the course of time.
Right now you're wondering what Gun-Kata is. GOOD. Keep wondering. We'll get to that in a little while. If I were to cut the trailer for Equilibrium I would set the stage with a few establishing shots so people would know that this film was set in the future and featured an oppressive society. Minimal voice-over, just a few shots. I'd also show off the cast. Regardless of how big their parts are, I'd show Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Sean Bean. Angus McFayden, Taye Diggs, and William Fichtner and show the actor's names on the screen. There's a load of talent here, and it's been proven time and time again that the general public needs a little help when it comes to getting the point from a trailer. After that brief overview, I'd just show that opening scene from the moment when he asks them to knock the lights out until the light is restored. Then the title.
That's it. No fancy music, no "In a world..." monologue, just a taste of what kind of hellishly cool and inventive product awaits just eight or nine dollars away.
I also think that's all you need to know, but since I'm not in the mood of quitting now here's some more. Perhaps you're wondering how on Earth you could empathize with a man who kills for this soul sucking society. An amazing soldier, but just another drone enslaved by the drug that rules the populace?
Well, what if something happened and he didn't get his dosage? What if some of the feelings that had been kept at bay so long started to creep back? What if the most dangerous man with a firearm started to realize just how wrong this way of life is and wanted to do something about it?
Well, that's the makings of a crackling good story.
Like some of the stories mentioned earlier, Equilibrium looks at our potential future (and if you find some of this stuff far fetched read the news a little more, if you can stomach it) with a bit of cynicism. In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley dealt with drugs helping keep the world moving and the ideas of totalitarianism. In 1984 there was an underground network (The Brotherhood) who offered an escape from the oppressive "Big Brother". Fahrenheit 451 featured the fear of art and ideas and knowledge. All those stories had themes consistent with this film, but they don't feel cribbed here. This isn't a dumbed down receptacle for those ideas. It's a vessel to take those ideas and blend them with many more and present in the guise of a science fiction film that'd to appeal to... yes, fans of films like The Matrix.
Back to the story.
As John Preston starts to see the reality of how benign humanity has become he still has to live the life of a Cleric. That means killing without impunity, showing no emotion or creativity, and not being affected by any bits of art, music, or culture that they burn. That means allowing his own children to continue being fed the Libria rhetoric, convincing his partners (Bean and Diggs) he's fine, and all the while find some sort of solution.
That solution may not exist. The fun is seeing just how things turn out, and when our hero's going dish out some of that patented Cleric ass kicking. Funnily, when I was a kid I never worked a Cleric in Dungeons & Dragons because they were more apt to heal than hurt. Here, we see people that are to guns what Jedi are to lightsabers.
Earlier I mentioned Gun-Kata. The name should speak for itself, but just in case...
Imagine a martial art completely based around guns. This theme exists in one way or another, but here it's taken to a level that is really cool and cinematic but thankfully doesn't dabble in otherworldy acts of dexterity. This isn't like Neo, who basically was given all of his skills and didn't really do the hard work to earn them. Additionally, this combat happens in the real world. Something about a guy training all his life to be the warrior that he is seems more genuine.
It doesn't hurt that the combat scenes are executed to perfection in the film. These ideas could have easily been laughable in the wrong hands, and to my shame I went into the screening for this film expecting exactly what several years of reporting on this industry has taught me:
Films that exist in release purgatory for a long time, especially ones that feature a good cast tend to disappoint.
But the great thing about "the norm" is the stuff that rises above it to define where the bar should be. Equilibrium is one of those instances.
The acting is top notch, with none of the performers mailing in their performance.
Christian Bale may be my favorite actor right now. He can do ANY genre, any style, any type of character and has all the physical tools to match it. To not see him as Batman would be a real loss. Here he gets to show incredible restraint as well as some moments of explosive physicality. In addition, he gets some time to show what it's like for a person to have emotions for the first time. Aside from some of the irate readers who send me hate email, none of us know that feeling... and seeing Preston undergo that awakening is not something you can simply block and shoot.
He does an incredible job, and considering that there's virtually no humor and no real big special effects sequences, a lot of the responsibility is on his shoulders to sell the concept. He shines, oh how he shines. While Jet Li relies on his martial arts prowess to carry his films, Bale uncorks one of the most impressive action debuts I've ever seen (Reign of Fire's action was mostly performed by others).
Emily Watson's on fire of late. She was one of the stronger elements in two films that let me down a little (Red Dragon & Punch Drunk Love), and here she does a wonderful job of being both a foil for Preston as well as an important aspect in his personal journey.
Taye Diggs and Angus McFayden also provide strong support in roles that could have very easily been delivered in the tongue-in-cheek Robocop/Starship Troopers vein.
Then there's Mr. Wimmer. Expect an interview with the man a little bit down the line, but until last week I only knew the name Kurt Wimmer as the name of some guy who was directing this small film then called Librium. We ran an article on the film WAY back, and it disappeared to the back of the brain. Now, after seeing his film twice and enjoying a really cool back and forth email discussion (he was kind enough to send me some CD's with artwork from the movie so you guys would have an idea what it looked like), I'm very much a fan of the writer/director.
What he did with what is an incredibly small budget for a film this ambitious is a Herculean achievement. Consider that this entire film was delivered at a cost that Mel Gibson wouldn't accept for his acting fee, and you'll get the gist.
There's quite a bit of artistry on display here, and Wimmer (along with cinematographer Dion Beebe) isn't afraid to play with light and shadow, even during an action sequence where a director would normally saturate the frame with filters. Think about it. Haven't we had enough overstylized sci-fi films recently? The film feels very raw in that aspect. It feels like it could have been filmed today or a couple of decades ago, lean and focused instead of flashy and conceptualized to death.
I think it makes it even more enriching when we do see something a little more stylish, whether it be a shot of the futuristic city awash in sunlight or hundreds of people gathered to listen to their leader speak.
So, in addition to being smart, well acted, respectful towards its influences, and well choreographed it has something on its mind and Wimmer does a wonderful job in his dual role in executing without making too many compromises.
It's a film that I would be surprised to hear of CHUD readers not loving the hell out of. Is it perfect? Of course not.
There's an opening bit of exposition that could benefit from some reworking, the budget limitations sometimes show a little, and there's a really cool sparring sequence with Diggs and Bale that's hampered by a bit too much melodramatic conversation. There are a few things logistically that feel a little bit glossed over, but they're so insignificant in the long run that they're just minor dips on the Autobahn.
You need to see this film. It's one of those stories we champion, the kind that we used to have to wait for video to appreciate. The kind we'd try to convince the video stores to sell as a previously viewed title without following the 60 or 90 day rule. It's a film made by someone who's seen so many films with all the tools it needed miss the mark and did something about it. It's a film that doesn't try to compete with the summer blockbusters but somehow outclasses them.
Eventually, Equilibrium is going to be released. Right now it looks like it'll be the first week of December. In a perfect world, it'd get the Pitch Black slot. Late February's that time before the summer season that sometimes holds a few gems and there's not all that pesky competition to worry about. Plus, it'd give the studio time to get people ready for the film instead of it just arriving amidst the crop.
Whenever it's released, there's one thing you have to worry about. Getting your ass in a seat at the earliest showing that Friday that you can make.
There are a few moments in this film that are going to have you almost shuddering with the coolness you just saw. Those will start the love affair, but your relationship with Equilibrium will truly be consummated on the second or third viewing when you realize that somehow a film squeezed through the system with its brain AND its dual automatic pistols intact.
Dimension, don't underestimate this film. Chewers, don't miss this film.
9.1 out of 10
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