Monday, March 13, 2006

Equilibrium (2002)

After my miserable experience last week watching UltraViolet, I've wondered what would possess me to plop down my seven bucks to see that piece of tripe, even though it was not screened for critics (a sure sign that a movie is a turkey) nor was there any positive word-of-mouth on teh 'nets. Like I stated before, I went in expecting a bad movie. But deep down in my heart, perhaps I was hoping that it would be a guilty pleasure.

I was led to believe it might be salvagable by writer/director Kurt Wimmer's previous film Equilibrium. Most critics met it with a "meh", but its sizable cult following made me wonder if it had some merit. I too plunked down seven bucks for that movie on DVD. It was one of the few movies I've purchased before having seen it, and for some reason it doesn't fill me with the same slap-myself-in-the-head regret that a ticket to UltraViolet did.

Here is the premise in a nut-shell: it is the 21st century and after the Third World War mankind decides that human emotions are too volatile and violent. To keep people from "feeling" inhabitants give themselves shots of some super anti-depressant called Prozium. Besides being zoned constantly on a super-Prozac, all art, literature, and music is banned. Possessing them is grounds for summary execution by black trenchcoated badasses called Grammaton Clerics.

The best of these Clerics is the blandly named John Preston (Christian Bale) who in the opening fifteen minutes of the movie murders an entire attic full of people for staring at paintings and listening to old records, burns the Mona Lisa, and shoots his partner (Sean Bean) for reading Yeats. We quickly learn that he let his wife be incinerated for an unspecified "sense offense", and he raises his creepy little Hitler Youth children in a bland apartment in the city of Libria, where they watch lectures by the omni-present Big Brother stand in called "Father."

Since despite all this mayhem, Cleric Preston is actually the protagonist of the movie, he misses one of his doses of Prozium early in the narrative and begins to "feel". Being off the Prozim for one day encourages him to listen to the jazz records he's so intent on burning. Falling in love with a woman he's captured and sentenced for incineration (Emily Watson) soon Cleric Preston is joining the resistance of art lovers he's sworn to wipe out in order to bring down the system.

Now, just reading that synopsis gives the very clear impression that Equilibrium filches its ideas from all over the place. The plot is a grab bag of totalitarian themes from 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451, laced with the over-the-top action of Total Recall and The Matrix. Logically, there's a whole lot that doesn't make sense either. If banning art is supposed to bring peace, why is the very first scene about gunning down hippies? And for a society dedicated to suppressing art, most of the architecture of Libria has a fascist grandeur by way of The Fountainhead look about it. Not to mention, how would a society based on suppressing emotion actually work? Without emotion, both the highs and the lows, aren't we just back to the "Good Kirk/Bad Kirk" conundrum?

To be sure, that's just a brief list of inconsistencies to be found in Equilibrium. I won't mention in depth the huge plot holes surrounding the non-sensical twist at the end, nor the cringe inducing risk our protagonist takes for a puppy. In a certain sense, Equilibrium is similar to the average blogger in that it's not nearly as smart, deep, or insightful as it thinks it is.

So why do I rate the movie as a "guilty pleasure" rather than cinematic dreck? Three things saved it from a trip back to the used DVD store...

1) Production values. Equilibrium squeezes the most out of it's $20 million dollar budget and looks damn stylish, even if its digital effects are obvious. Of course, this may just be in comparison to the absolute visual horrorshow the more expensive UltraViolet was.

2) Action scenes. Equilibrium's closest spiritual cousin and competitor is The Matrix, which was able to wittily explain it's comic book heroics by setting its characters in what was essentially a video-game. Take Equilibrium at face value when they attribute the Clerics gravity defying, bullet dodging Gun-Kata skills to just training really hard.

Still, only the most hardened movie-viewer won't find the idea of Gun-Kata cool. Equilibrium harkens back to the time when black helmeted henchmen were just cannon fodder to be mowed down by the good guys. They make the same tactical mistakes the baddies in UltraViolet make (standing way to close to the hero; arranging themselves into Polish firing squads etc.) but it's more forgivable since this is the first time we've seen it. A few well choreographed sword fights are thrown in for good measure.

While The Matrix undoubtedly wins the contest of two-fisted Beretta sci-fi action, credit Equilibrium for not once using wire-fu or bullet-time to beef up its action scenes. Also impressive is the fact that while action is one of the few things sitting squarely in this film's plus column, it doesn't blow its load right away and just give us wall-to-wall violence. It is a common mistake directors make that turns action movies into just two hours of sound and fury. Like sex, action is best served in an evenly paced manner, building itself up to a climax.

3) Christian Bale. More than once has Bale's presence lifted otherwise middling material (see: The Machinist or American Psycho). Equilibrium is one of the first films to show his action movie chops, and is arguably a better showcase of them than even Batman Begins.

Since I'm making a whole lot of comparisons to The Matrix here, then let me state that Bale's performance is one of the few advantages Equilbrium has over it. While the Wachowskis used Keanu Reeve's natural "duh" demeanor to mirror the audiences confusion, Bale's delivers a nuanced performance that that ranges from chilling to comic. He evolves from a man who is icy cold and dispassionate into a man that is just acting icy cold and dispassionate to save his ass. Oh, and his expression while rescuing the puppy is fucking priceless.

While this may sound like a whole lot of dick sucking on my part...well, quite frankly it is. Christian Bale is my answer to the other Christian's (Slater, that is) question at the beginning of True Romance.

With just slightly fewer summary executions than Schindler's List and an oppresive Orwellian setting, it's hard to say that Equilibrium is a "fun" movie. It is, however, extremely watchable and will act as methadone for action freaks until John Woo gets his act together and makes a good movie again. Unfortunately, as evidenced by UltraViolet, Gun-Kata is pretty much the only thing up Kurt Wimmer's sleeve.


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