Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Equilibrium (2002)

Title: Equilibrium (2002)

Writer/Director: Kurt Wimmer

Cast: Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Sean Bean, Taye Diggs, William Fichtner


Director/Writer Kurt Wimmer has had an interesting career, though you might not think so at first because he’s only directed three films, he continues working as a screenwriter in big budget Hollywood action/sci-fi films like the recent Total Recall (2012) which in spite of being a “softer” film than Verhoeven’s blood drenched original film starting Arnold Schwarzenegger, still managed to be an entertaining film in my book. He also wrote Salt (2010) which by the way I absolutely loved; it got me to respect Angelina Jolie as an action star. Wimmer’s first directing gig was a Brian Bosworth action film called One Man’s Justice (1996) a.k.a. One Tough Bastard; but he got fired half way through the shoot of that film, so most of the time, he speaks of Equilibrium as his first directorial effort.  

Wimmer directs Bale

Equilibrium tells the tale of ‘Libria’; a world ruled under the tight regime of a dictator who is simply referred to as “Father”. What kind of a world is Libria? Well, because of the horrors brought on by war, this new society has decided that they want to stop feeling. In order to inhibit feelings everyone takes a drug called ‘Prozium’ at certain points during the day. To further hold a grip on society’s feelings, all forms of artistic expression have been prohibited. This means that poetry, novels, paintings, films and music have all been outlawed. Of course, not everyone agrees with this way of life and groups of rebels are spread out through out the land, hiding their music records, their books and paintings in little cache’s of cultural awesomeness. In order to find these cultural treasures and destroy them, the government has the ‘Grammaton Clerics’, police men who go around burning all forms of artistic expression. One of these Clerics is John Preston. Problem is that Preston has stopped taking Prozium and is starting to feel. Will he succumb to the wonders of sensation? Or will he remain a cold, robotic tool of the government?

Through his film, Wimmer comments on many things, one of them being emotional repression. Films make us feel, and Wimmer whose worked in the film industry for many, many years knows how repressed the filmmaking industry is. There’s no better example than Total Recall (2012); a film that Wimmer himself wrote. In my comparison between the old and new Total Recall, I felt this new one had been neutered, stripped of all that edgy violent coolness that the 1990 version had. On Equilibrium, we meet characters who are rebels and have stopped feeling. One of these characters is Mary. a character that has stopped taking the emotion repressing drug. When she is questioned as to why she wants to feel she says: “Feeling is as vital as breath, and without it. Without love, without anger, without sorrow, breath is just a clock…ticking” Equilibrium speaks about how repressed society has become, and more specifically how repressed the American film industry is.

Certain cultural artifacts in Equilibrium are rated ‘EC-10’ by the government, a not so subtle way of commenting on the nefarious ‘NC-17’, a rating that can kill a films chances at the box office. During a point in the film we even see a foot soldier of the government burning a roll of film, so yes, Wimmer was commenting on the repressive nature of the rating systems in the film industry. I read an interview in which Wimmer accurately compares films to a drug. We see a sad film when we want to feel sad, an uplifting one when we want to feel uplifted and a funny one when we want to laugh. And it is true; films are like a drug that can manipulate our emotions. How many times have you found yourself deeply moved by a film; to the point where you even drop a tear or two? Ever found yourself screaming for Rocky to win? We have a rating system to control what the younger population is be exposed to, but is it also used to control the ideas we are presented with? Through the drug that the people of Libria take in Wimmer’s film, he was commenting on the Motion Picture Association of America and how they try to hold back what ideas we are exposed to and what we can feel through films. 

Of course, I am not against controlling the kind of images that our children are exposed to with a film. It would be stupid to allow a child to see a film like Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) for example. But why limit this films chances at appearing on the silver screen by rating it NC-17 and therefore limiting the amount of screens it can be seen in? Yes it is a violent and disturbing film, but it also comments about real life, in fact, the film is partially based on the exploits of real life murderer Henry Lee Lucas. It comments on real life horrors, and this, as seen by an educated adult shouldn’t be a problem. We all know that life is ugly, life is deadly, bloody, nasty, but it is also beautiful and uplifting and emotional. In life, things don’t always end with a happy ending; in fact the truth is that we rarely get a happy ending to anything! So why make believe that everything is pretty and clean and perfectly solved, when in real life this isn’t so? Aren’t films and art a mirror image of the world we live in? Doesn’t art imitate life? If this is so, then part of our world is in denial of who we really are. There’s a moment in Equilibrium when Cleric John Preston begins to feel, he looks at himself in the mirror and screams “look at yourself!” Maybe this is something that we as a society should start doing. Instead of trying to hide things as if they didn’t exist. There should be no problem in analyzing who we are through films; or maybe this is something that the powers that be don’t want the people to do? Think? Analyze? Learn? Again, as has happened before, film is seen as a threat, as a powerful tool that can change the way we see things as therefore, it is considered dangerous. This is also a theme I talked a bit about in my review for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003).

It cannot be denied that Equilibrium is obviously highly influenced by Orwelle’s 1984, Huxley’s A Brave New World and Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 all books about societies living under fascist dictatorships. The burning of books, a totalitarian government ruled by a huge television screen, children who rat on their parents, art and sex being prohibited, rebels who want nothing more then to be themselves and be free, these are all elements that we’ve seen before on these books and films. What Equilibrium adds to the mix is the action and the style. It’s 1984 mixed with The Matrix. It’s no secret that Wimmer loves his kung fu style action; he always finds a way to work it into his films. This element was felt even stronger in Wimmer’s Ultraviolet (2006) a film that was taken by the studio and re-edited beyond recognition. Here’s the deal with Ultraviolet: you can see it has a lot of cool elements to it, the visuals are eye candy; the film is so colorful, always changing, visually, it’s never boring. It has a lot of that comic book style action Wimmer loves so much! Motorcycles that ride up buildings! Sadly, the film was re-edited by the studio who thought Wimmer’s cut of the film was “too emotional”. Again with the repression of emotions! The studio wanted to augment the more superficial elements of the film. As a result, we got a film that feels like a big old mess. But that wasn’t Wimmer’s fault; he wanted a film that would have as much action as emotion, yet it was the studio that wanted things the other way around. So if you find Ultraviolet to be a film that’s style over substance, now you know who to blame. I’d love to see Wimmer’s cut of the film!

Equilibrium benefits from having Christian Bale in the role of John Preston, a member of the government who suddenly finds he doubts what he does. He kills, nay, exterminates, the poor, the artistic and rebellious side of society. Their only crime is wanting to live in a world where they could be themselves; where they can be individuals. Not a world where we all think, dress, and look alike. Don’t know about you guys, but I fight for this everyday. For trying to be an individual, to say what I think and not be afraid to do so, to not wear a mask, to be the exception, not the norm, to be myself. This is what Equilibrium is all about. There’s this moment in which John Preston stops taking the drug and starts realizing that he is spilling the blood of innocents, he is no longer a cold robotic tool of the government, he feels and realizes he has someone’s blood on his hands. Wow, what a moment! Bale plays Preston in such a cold matter, with an emotionless face for a huge part of the film, but little by little emotion creeps its way into his life, then he is a tortured soul. That scene where he hears Beethoven’s 9th for the first time, amazing stuff.

Of course the film is not perfect. Its budgetary limitations sometimes show their ugly face. For example, this is supposed to be a distant future, completely unrelated to the world we live in, yet the Clerics drive Cadillac Seville’s painted entirely in white? That takes me right out of this future world and takes me right back to the 90’s. Performance wise Taye Diggs is the only weak link in the film. While Emily Watson, Christian Bale and Sean Bean all turn in great performances, Digg’s fails to portray an emotionless being because he is always smiling or screaming in anger. What happened to the supposedly emotionless cleric? Worst part is that he says that he can detect someone who is feeling even before they know it themselves. Shouldn’t he know he himself is showing emotion all the time? He’s constant smirking gets a bit annoying. Also, the films comic book style action clashes with its heavy themes, but if you find comic book styled action entertaining (the way I do) then you just might find enjoyment in it. Especially the martial arts called 'Gun Kata' that Wimmer created specifically for this film. It's kind of like mixing Kung-Fu mixed with Guns, pretty cool stuff. Bottom line is this is a film with lots to say, heavy on themes, the way good sci-fi should be. It has a couple of weak moments that don’t allow it to be a perfect sci-fi, but it can certainly be qualified as  beyond average. This is a film that speaks about the importance of not loosing our humanity, and that matters a lot in my book.

Rating: 4 out of 5   


Unknown said...

I did not know that the studio re-edited ULTRAVIOLET! Interesting. I still really enjoyed the film for the reasons you mentioned but, something felt off about it and now I know why.

EQUILIBRIUM is certainly the superior film and manages to one-up the gun battles in THE MATRIX and with a lot less money I imagine. Christian Bale was certainly well cast and he really carried the film and did an excellent job showing the progression of his character from unfeeling law enforcement to a caring revolutionary.

The film certainly wrestles with some fascinating issues that elevate it above the usual B-sci-fi movie that's for sure.

Franco Macabro said...

Equilibrium was shot for 20 million, The Matrix had 63! It is a smaller film, no doubt, but it has a lot of heart to it. I wonder if we'll ever get a directors cut of Ultraviolet, it would be interesting to see what Wimmer truly intended with it.

SFF said...

Great coverage here of a minor, quality sci-fi film that is forever enjoyed.

Perhaps Wimmer's best, but the Ultraviolet details are interesting. But you are so right about Wimmer, it has been an interesting and in some ways unexpected career trajectory. At least it feels that way. He never seems to break out but he continues to assemble interesting ideas that never seem to take off.

In fact many of Wimmer's films feel cold and robotic in some ways and it feels like Equilibrium gets it ostly right by letting some of the emotion in.

I agree completely with your point abut Bale adding to its success.

Loads of great ideas and executed very well on a small budget.

The Beethoven scene is brilliant. I also absolutely love that puppy scene. How moving is that?

Nice work as always! sff

Franco Macabro said...

Yeah, I'd say his career has been more prolific as a writer, but I'd love to see him direct something else soon.


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