"It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men." ~ H.L. Mencken
"Here's one you'll love," said Rewind Randy, the bony kid who works at Planet Ozone Video. I was studying the new releases for rent, and Randy handed me a DVD he was just shelving.
"Yeah, I'll bet," I grunted skeptically. I flipped it over and examined the back. "You were also sure I'd love Nurse Betty."
"Well, I thought you were a big Renee Zellweger fan," he answered defensively.
"Bridget Fonda," I corrected.
"Oh." He shook his head. "Why do I get those two mixed up?"
The video he'd handed me was a sci-fi thing called Equilibrium. I'd never heard of it. But I liked the promotional slogan on the box: "In A Future Where Freedom Is Outlawed, Outlaws Will Become Heroes."
"It's got Christian Bale in it," Randy said, still pitching. "You know, the dude from Reign of Fire."
I recalled the cheesy dragon movie, but I didn't remember Bale.
"And Emily Watson's also in it. She played the blind chick in Red Dragon. She's a hottie."
"I suppose she is," I agreed, ''in a quirky, Renee Zellweger sort of way."
"Anyway, I watched it last night," Randy continued. He pointed at the picture on the box's front. It showed a guy in a long, black, Armani topcoat, arms outstretched, each hand gripping a pistol, legs braced for combat. "I expected a Matrix rip-off. But it's more like Fahrenheit 451, only with lots of firearms and really great gunfights."
"The Matrix movies have great gunfights, too," I said.
"Nothing like this."
So I took the DVD home, and Randy was right. Equilibrium's gun battle sequences are thrilling, almost balletic. And they demonstrate an extraordinary new fighting system called "Gun-Kata," a mix of two parts martial arts and one part pistolcraft. The film is a gun buff's wetdream.
But here's the best part. Stir the exciting gunplay into a smart dystopian story, and Equilibrium becomes a near-epic libertarian action film.
Writer-director Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium takes place in the not-too-distant future and shortly after World War III. The nation-state Libria determines that wars result not from governments but from emotionally and sensually charged citizens. So they outlaw all music, literature, and art. And they begin doping the populace into 'equilibrium' with twice-daily shots of Prozium, an emotion-dampening drug that turns folks into passionless flatworms. The enforcers of this policy are called Clerics. They blowtorch books and paintings and ferret out and kill all "sense offenders" who just say no to their meds. And it's a highly ranked Cleric named John Preston (Christian Bale) who serves as this movie's Winston Smith, its Montag, its awakening conscience. Preston accidentally knocks his morning ampule of Prozium onto the bathroom floor, shattering it, so he misses a dose. He discovers what real emotional equilibrium is all about. Within a few days, inspired by an alluring sense offender named Mary (Watson), Preston is the Resistance's prime instrument of national liberation. And what better instrument than a state-trained Gun-Kata master?
Equilibrium is derivative of any number of dystopian classics. That didn't escape the notice of the few critics who bothered to review the movie when it was dumped without promotion into a handful of theaters last December. The Los Angeles Times called Equilibrium a "science-fiction pastiche so lacking in originality that if you stripped away its inspirations there would be precious little left." Another review accused it of being "brazenly pillaged from Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World."
But so what?
One tyranny's as contemptible as another, right? We begat Brave New World, which begat Anthem, which begat 1984, which begat Fahrenheit 451, which begat This Perfect Day, and so on and on. Equilibrium is inspired by and builds upon that magnificent fictional tradition. And it does so exceptionally well, despite a relatively low budget (about $125 million less than was spent on the Matrix sequels). Most of Equilibrium was shot in Berlin, and that city's massive architecture works very effectively as backdrop to the story.
The performances are all first class. Christian Bale could have played Preston over-the-top in his shift from calculated, drugged government killer to emotionally charged rebel, but he wisely doesn't. In fact, Bale's Preston doesn't find joy in his sensual freedom, he finds guilt. Only in the film's wonderful closing shot does even the suggestion of a smile appear on his face. Emily Watson's willowy performance reminds me of Brigitte Helm in Fritz Lang's Metropolis; she's wonderful. And Sean Bean (Fellowship of the Ring, Goldeneye) appears for only a few minutes as Preston's Cleric partner Partridge, but those moments are among the movie's most powerful and moving.
Roger Ebert was one of Equilibrium's few champions among the film critic elite. He wrote: ''there are nations and religions that would find this movie dangerous. You know who you are."
And so do we.
I've forgiven Rewind Randy for Nurse Betty. Equilibrium is a "keeper" for all lovers of liberty and fighters for freedom.