Tread Softly, Because You Tread On My Dreams: Equilibrium (2002)

As predicted, my involvement here on the blog is taking a step back as I am increasingly overwhelmed with my studies.  Indeed, I have even made the foolish choice of submitting to present at yet another conference with the blind hope that I will be accepted (it is in Montana!).  Yet, I am retaining some semblance of a film viewing regiment, although that is proving increasingly difficult.  The only things I seem to have time to watch at the moment are a deluge of wacky and delightful Godzilla movies for research and my obligatory #cyberpunksaturday viewing.  It is this recent viewing that I have come back with a blogging vengeance.  Equilibrium, which marketed itself as 2002's answer to The Matrix appears to have all but fallen to they wayside when it was faced up against the likes of the impressively epic Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (my favorite film of the year) and now established contemporary classics like Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can.  In any other year, Equilibrium would have blown competition out of the water and much like Alex Proyas's Dark City, it has become a film that is adored in small circles and continually grows wider in its appreciation.  I am actually quite astonished that the mainstream filmgoer has not better latched onto this film, because frankly it has all the visual cues and elements to make it an ideal piece of popular cinema.  I cannot fathom how it did not fare better, aside from bad advertising or misinterpretation of its winding and precise plot, but it is absolutely worth even the most hardened of cinephiles time.  Both a visionary work in the realm of science fiction, as well as a love letter to its cyberpunk predecessors, Equilibrium does not ask to be viewed, but uses its hyper-sleek styling and techno-beat pacing to authoritatively demand that one watches it.  While it does not expressly set itself up as an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, it does have all the signs and symbols of the dystopian masterpiece.  Here, however, the sense of disillusionment takes on a prescribed and potent level, no moment lacking from a perfect crafting.  Indeed, the comparisons to The Matrix are suitable, because in terms of world creating, Kurt Wimmer's film is almost on the level of The Wachowski's work.  It is a surprise, and admitted curiosity that this director also made Ultraviolet.  It is almost enough to make me watch that generally reviled film.

Equilibrium focus in on the hyper dystopia world of Libria, a world where all forms of emotional response have been deemed illegal and any materials which could result in such affect are either burned or kept in lock down far from the citizens access.  All persons inhabiting Libria are also subject to shots of Prozium which help to stave off any feelings or emotions, by creating disaffected citizens who move through the space of Libria like robots.  In opposition to Libria are the occupants of the "Nether" a space where humanity strives to continually claim a world of emotion and learning, even at the cost of continual attacks by the soldiers of Libria.  These soldiers are headed by individuals known as Grammaton Clerics, whose skills in gun kata and noted lack of emotions make them particularly skilled at taking down Nether rebels.  One such cleric, John Preston (Christian Bale) takes it upon himself to be outdo other members in his elite group, even betraying his former partner when he finds him suspect to harboring EC-10 materials (anything relating to evoking emotional content).  When John 'accidentally' misses one of his shots of Prozium things change considerably, becoming aware of his surroundings in a new way, John begins to make egregious errors in front of his new partner Brandt (Taye Diggs) as well as falling for one of the EC-10 violators named Mary O'Brien (Emily Watson) when he finds her to eerily resemble his dead wife.  Attempting to perform disaffection, John now navigates the world of Libria, hyperaware of the ways in which the society is hyper oppressive and indeed quite violent, proving unable to stand his place as a cleric any longer after he is forced to watch a group of soldiers gun down puppies.  When the resistance comes to realize that he is removed from the performance, they recruit him to assassinate the figure of Father (Sean Pertwee) the panoptic figure who is constantly overseeing the state of Libria.  After layers of trickery and help from unexpected sources, John is able to get to the inner space of Libria and find the veritable man behind the curtain, coming to destroy him and the entire system of propaganda spreading in the process. While it implies that this change will move to a new world, the certainty of this endeavor is left open-ended.

The major criticism mounted against this film appears to be that it is a mash-up of perviously executed films on the subject of dystopian future spaces, borrowing heavily from the works of cyberpunk fiction, Huxley visions of the future and enough 80's future cinema to not justify its own existence.  I would argue that this is true to a degree, but it would be a different story if the narrative were doing so merely to appropriate its own self-righteous ideals.  Instead, Equilibrium knowingly and purposefully incorporates pasts films in a pastiche that works wonderfully, not pretending to be revolutionary in its narrative, but instead adding a new voice to a dialogue that has been occurring well before the film came along.  Indeed, choosing to situate the film in settings from thirties era Berlin works two-fold to legitimately incorporate the hyper-fascist elements of many dystopian spaces, while also paying homage to Fritz Lang's Metropolis a film whose structure and look are clearly an influence upon Equilibrium.  Indeed, nothing about Equilibrium is hokey or misguided, but displays nothing short of honest craft from a director who openly admits to making films with the audiences interests in mind.  Indeed, when I hear directors make such assertions I am often immediately dismissive, because this makes me think of Michael Bay or the works of the Fast and Furious franchise.  Here, however, Wimmer is suggesting that not only is an audience capable of engaging with a relatively complex and open-ended plot, but that they are also more filmically versed than most major blockbuster films might suggest.   I would be hard pressed to find a similar critical attack being mounted against Quentin Tarantino who is essentially doing the exact same thing with every single one of his films and in the past few attempts they have been less than stellar in their result, returning to marked territory, not by former directors, but by Tarantino himself.  While I have soured on Pulp Fiction over the years, I can admit to the genuine success of its post-moderning mining of genre, I would argue that Equilibrium works to the same success and in many ways is far superior in its result.  This is not The Matrix by any means, but it certainly stands in a realm of audacious force that should be supported and promoted in filmmaking, not chastised.

Key Scene:  The discovery of Beethoven is one of the more low key sequences in the film, but it is absolutely the crux of the film and played as such.

This film demands your viewing.  There are apparently some issues with the bluray transfers available, so it might be (in the rare occasion) safer to go with the DVD.

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