Review - Films in Review

Last Update: 18 November 2002

Source: Films in Review

Post 9/11 the philosophical message of “Personal Freedom First” might not be as palpable as intended.

There are a lot of things that are illegal right now, among them: I can’t grow a field of poppies and I had to abide by the Rules & Regulations of my homeowner’s association regarding landscaping. Somebody decided these things for us and we willingly forego personal desires for the common good of all. But what would happen if nobody was behaving and World War III nearly devastated mankind? The threat of World War IV loomed high. Like a misbehaving child, the only thing to do is take away all toys, turn off the TV, and punish the bad behavior. You take away all sensory pleasures.

In EQUILIBRIUM, this is exactly what has happened. Apparently, destroying mankind was deemed unacceptable, and strict measures are taken to restore order and rebuild civilization. Somebody had to do something! The new society, headed by “Father,” decided to make the main cause of all bad acts — “feelings” — illegal and punishable by death. This may sound harsh, but each person is given an injectable drug called Prozium that facilitates the numbing of the senses. It’s not necessary to fight hoary biological urges anymore. Everyone is behaving.

Eventually “The List of Don’ts” gets bigger. Nothing pretty or lacy is allowed. A quasi-religious/military sect, called “clericks,” maintains the peace and the law. These are the only people who seem to be enjoying life. They destroy property and kill. An underground network of people who like having nice stuff and defying the status quo is growing. They refuse to take the anti-senses drug.

John Preston (Christian Bale) is a member of the elite and a top “clerick.” He heads a team that routes out anybody who commits the crime of “sensing” and takes them to be summarily killed. He ruthlessly carries out the law. Preston arrests Mary O’Brien (Emily Watson) who dares him to see what “feeling” is all about. The very next day he spills his Prozium and impulsively decides to throw away all that he has accomplished in this tough, fascist hierarchy and not get a replacement vial.

Interestingly, his Hitler’s Youth son quickly notifies the authorities he needs another vial. Immediately he starts to feel things. He sees colors and takes off his heavy gloves to feel a chrome banister. But he still goes to work everyday stamping out hidden treasures. (I’ve seen Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa several times and it’s a lot smaller than the one Preston destroys.) He starts to feel guilt. Clerick Preston is placed in a paradoxical quandary. Does he throw his life away for a piece of red ribbon? (My nod to Napoleon’s famous quote.)

“Father” is a futuristic, video god who doesn’t make public appearances. His doctrine is broadcast on public video screens. Master Clerick (Angus MacFadyen) is the spokesperson for “Father” and Preston’s mentor. Preston discovers his partner, Partridge (Sean Bean), illegally reading a book and quickly deals with it. Preston’s new partner, Clerick Brandt (Taye Diggs), is a gun-ho, happy careerist. He likes what he does and wants Preston’s top job.

Brandt begins to question Preston’s loyalties because he’s acting strange. To prove himself anew, Master Clerick asks Preston to infiltrate the underground rebels and destroy the network.

Writer/director Kurt Wimmer has taken the Fahrenheit 451 tale and retooled it using the always fantastic, THE MATRIX-like wire-work, design, and gravitis (but without the wink.) Yes, its derivative, but if you liked THE MATRIX and GATTICA, you’ll enjoy this. Watching Bale strut through EQUILBRIUM in his black garb and sleek-backed black hair, I thought about the enduring power of uniforms. If only the Taliban had understood this concept and streamlined, belted, and mandated leather for the burqa, perhaps their worldview would have been deemed at least fashion-forward.

All the architecture is oppressive and the granite behemoths (just the campus of The State University at Purchase, New York) bear down on the zombie population. I like movies that show the director’s vision and Wimmer spent a lot of time thinking about presenting this future-gone-bad tale. EQUILIBRIUM’S world is stripped of all color and Nature is a memory. Everybody’s life force is drained of passion. Yet, there’s Brandt’s thrill, Preston’s complexity, and Master Clerick’s art-rich office that give EQUILIBRIUM an interesting, eerie subtext.

Considering that post 9/11 all Americans are willing to be searched thoroughly at airports and want to be monitored by ubiquitous surveillance cameras, I don’t think the philosophical message of “Personal Freedom First” is as palpable as it once might have been. Sometimes people abuse freedom. Sometimes letting everyone’s “freak flag fly” has dire consequences.

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