November 14, 2006
Movie Review By: SFAM
Directed by: Kurt Wimmer
Written by: Kurt Wimmer
Degree of Cyberpunk Visuals: High
Correlation to Cyberpunk Themes: Medium
Key Cast Members:
Overview: Equilibrium is one of those movies that most everyone who knows of it has only seen it on DVD. Essentially thrown away by its studio, Equilibrium, created for a budget just over 20 million was given no dollars for marketing and made less than a million at the box office. But don’t let that sway you into thinking this movie is a piece of trash. Equilibrium has become a cult DVD hit. Made in Eastern Germany portion of Berlin, Equilibrium looks lots more substantial than the 20 million that went into it. Due to some terrific location choices, Equilibrium shines with a polish of a movie made for at least twice that budget. This, plus high quality acting and at least a modicum of interesting thought raise Equilibrium up from the pop-FX action-fest that it otherwise might have become.
The Setting: Set sometime in the 21st century, after a massive nuclear war has wiped out the majority of the human race, a 1984 style society has emerged after a method of full population control was discovered. The entire population is now given a daily dose of a drug called of Prozium. Prozium removes all semblances of emotion, and leaves the populace docile and controlled. Exhibiting emotion is now considered the greatest of all crimes, and is punishable by death. The all-knowing, all-controlling “Father” has constructed a group of supra-police called “clerics” who spend their time seeking out “sense offenders” and burning all remnants of the old way.
The Story: Cleric John Preston (starring Christian Bale) is among the best cleric enforcers. Along with his partner, Errol Partridge (Sean Bean), they spend their days burning heretical artifacts like the Mona Lisa and bringing sense offenders in for processing – a euphemism for baking people in a large oven. Unfortunately, Partridge has begun to have doubts about society, and has apparently stopped taking the drug. After Preston finds out and kills him, Partridge’s final thoughts compel Preston to revisit his own personal history in which he showed no emotions as his wife was burned for sense making. Preston begins to question the intense surveillance society.
In tracking down Partridge’s lover (Emily Watson), Preston’s world finally crumbles. Now he realizes he has presided over the destruction of humanity, and can no longer continue. Unfortunately, Dupont (Angus Macfadyen), the mouthpiece of the Father and leader of the Clerics has asked Preston to infiltrate the remainder of the resistance in order to crush them once and for all. But Preston is actually approached by the resistance leader, Jürgen (William Fichtner) who has noticed his recent spate of emotion. While Preston is still conflicted, Jürgen tries to enlist Preston in destroying the Father. Even worse, Preston’s ambitious new partner, Brandt (Taye Diggs) strongly suspects Preston of becoming a sense offender.
The Acting: The acting in Equilibrium is top notch. For my money, the best performance is turned in by Sean Bean, who, while only on screen for a brief time, really hammers home the essence of the message Equilibrium is conveying. But truly, all the main cast is terrific. Bale does a very good job in going through a conversion in losing his faith, while Fichtner, Macfadyen, Diggs and Watson all really add real believability to a somewhat forced story. Truly, the acting sets Equilibrium above a better than average genre movie to something really worth watching.
The Action – GunKata: Gunkata is Kurt Wimmer’s newly invented martial art – gun combat in close quarters. The idea is that body positioning and fluid movements, along with an intense understanding of one’s opponents’ most likely actions will allow the Gunkata master – Clerics, in Equilibrium – to be close to unstoppable. Many times in Equilibrium, Preston goes into a room LOADED of bad guys and wipes them all out. Does it look in the least realistic? Not at all, but it does look cool. The action sequences are hectic by design, but are always well planned out and executed. Even if you could care less about the message, if you like gun fighting, Equilibrium is for you!
The Visuals: The color of the day for Equilibrium is black, gray and occasionally white. Virtually everything is in black with brief highlights. This makes the instances where other colors are used, such as Preston’s Bruce Lee white outfit near the end of the picture, or the yellow sunset as seeming enormously more significant than they normally would seem. The other dominant theme is squared off architecture. Everything here is comprised of right angles to emphasize the controlled, boxed-in feel of the society. Even worse, the only prominent place that a circle appears is the processing factory, where sense-offenders are burned. Wimmer uses his most excellent set selections to optimal effect. The Cinematography choices always go for high shadows and contrasts, and usually come from interesting angles and contexts. Without trying to resort to high-tech wizardry, the world Wimmer ultimately creates is believable and otherworldly.
Centralized Control and the Surveillance Society: While the message is often obscured by the slick visuals and action sequences, Equilibrium’s basis is right out of the Metropolis, 1984 model. In looking at a situation where humanity has gone awry, the corrective procedure is one which divorces people from that which makes them human – their emotions. In this model, emotion control leads to thought control, which yields a smooth, functioning society. The warning is clear – if we move down a road that involves giving up our personal freedom, the danger is that we lose our technology. If I were to point out quibbles with this, the idea of the single, evil genius behind all of everything bad lessons the impact. The message conveyed is that society slowly made the choice to go this route – it would have been better to see remnants of that choice still guiding the society versus the simple “glorious leader” bad guy.
Is There Any Relevance to Today’s World? While only briefly mentioned by Sean Bean’s character, Partridge discusses the “trade off” that humanity made. In exchange for security and stability, they agreed to trade away their freewill. One gets the sense that this was a slow process at first, but which picked up dramatically once centralized control was present. While it’s a far stretch to imagine an emotion blocker being instituted, if we imagine freewill as a sliding scale, its clear that the debate between our personal freedoms and societal security measures are clashing right now. One can only imagine how much greater support the security side would be if in fact a nuclear conflict did break out. Unfortunately, this too is becoming far more likely – in 20 years, we can certainly envision that the number of groups and governments in possession of nuclear material will be far greater than today. The risk isn’t just that a small group of terrorists will use it. Unfortunately, pre-emption of conflict by larger countries could also lead to such a response. In short, as the concern for security and stability are greater, the pressure to impact personal freedoms will grow. If this isn’t a key ingredient for the creation of a cyberpunked world, I don’t know what would be.
Is Equilibrium Cyberpunk? This is an open question at some level, but I’ve come down on the “yes” side (obviously, as its reviewed here) for three reasons. First, in Equilibrium, centralized control dominates all “above ground” communication, while the horizontal control is the domain of the rebels. We don’t really see any instances of an internet, but we know it exists in some form, based on the rebel leader Jürgen’s comments. The only true downer from a cyberpunk control standpoint is the book used to record contraband – gimme a break, Wimmer! The second reason is the drug, Prozium. The bio-engineered drugs serve as a dominating form of technology that serves to dehumanize society. Until we separate out “Biopunk” movies from Cyberpunk, Equilibrium belongs here. Thirdly, the visuals TRULY fit into a post-Matrix cyberpunk visual style. Without hearing a lick of dialogue, if you only saw the visuals, you might consider sticking Equilibrium into the cyberpunk bucket.
The Bottom Line: Equilibrium makes the most of its 20 million dollar budget. Truly, after watching it, most people are shocked to find out how little was spent on making Equilibrium. From an execution standpoint, everything fits like a sleeck black glove. From the well integrated and motivating score, to the high quality acting, to the even pacing, Equilibrium works to create a very believable mood. On top of this, Equilibrium’s action is hot shit! Wimmer’s creation of GunKata – a new martial arts for close-combat gunfighting is interesting and innovative. However, the story itself is still a stretch, as is the believability of the Gunkata. In the end though, this is really a minor quibble, as the end product is intelligent enough to cause you to ponder while engaging enough to keep you entertained.