Brutal. Impassive. Soul-crushing. These are all words that could describe Equilibrium’s near-future setting of Libria, a concrete mega-city where art is banned, mood-suppressing drugs are compulsory and the dour status quo is protected by a death squad led by Christian Bale in a big black tunic. But they could also describe the film’s reviews when it was released in December 2002.
“So lacking in originality that if you stripped away its inspirations there would be precious little left,” declared the LA Times. “An unsophisticated sci-fi drama that takes itself all too seriously,” agreed Variety. This cautionary parable of a defective society emerging from the nuclear wreckage of a third world war also left the New York Times unmoved: “A movie that could be stupider only if it were longer.”
To dismiss Equilibrium as unoriginal, self-serious or stupid is to overlook a deceptively rich text made with the skimpiest of budgets. It may borrow wholesale from some dystopian golden oldies – Libria is a boilerplate Big Brother surveillance state with heavy Fahrenheit 451 overtones – but it still brings something to the party that Orwell and Bradbury do not: the mesmerising martial art of “gun kata”.
According to Angus Macfadyen’s purring chief baddie, the vogue-like poses of gun kata are based on statistical analysis of countless shootouts, granting adherents the uncanny skill of knowing where best to aim while also avoiding incoming fire. Thus well-drilled clerics like Bale’s John Preston and his rival Brandt (Taye Diggs) can pull off Matrix-style dodges while briskly annihilating “sense offenders” guilty of hoarding the sort of contraband that could trigger dangerous emotions (anything from Renaissance art to tacky gift-shop kitsch).
It is a head-spinning juxtaposition. Why would an empire obsessed with leaching the joy from everything create an enforcer caste who go about their lethal business with the florid grace of Cirque du Soleil tumblers? Yet once you have made peace with that central incongruity, the pleasures of Equilibrium open like a blossoming flower.
Chief among these is watching stoic enforcer Preston thaw from Mona Lisa-torching zealot to insurrectionist pleasure-seeker after he accidentally misses his morning dose and begins to feel emotions bubbling up inside him again. This ideological volte-face comes a little late for his fellow cleric Sean Bean, whose illicit love of Yeats requires Preston to tread rather heavily on his dreams via a close-range headshot. But it is good news for the underground Resistance looking to instigate regime change. If the newly sentimental Preston can maintain his impassive facade long enough to enact a do-or-die plan, the pump-action revolution will come.
Equilibrium honours the unspoken contract between any action film and its target audience: show us some awesome stuff and then iterate and escalate in every subsequent sequence. So after establishing Preston as a balletic dervish with a brace of customised pistols, he is subsequently shown to be just as deadly with hand-to-hand combat, shotguns and a samurai sword. This brutally efficient close-quarters method, flowing smoothly but violently through multiple targets, feels like a crucial precursor to John Wick’s celebrated whatever-it-takes approach.
While clearly relishing the chance to choreograph some gun kata coolness, writer-director Kurt Wimmer is at least as invested in examining his protagonist’s re-emerging humanity. Long-dormant feelings are ignited by a crackly vinyl encounter with Beethoven’s Ninth, an experience staged to seem as transcendent as possible. Preston’s passions are further stirred during charged interrogations with fiery sense offender Mary (Emily Watson). But the pivotal Equilibrium scene occurs after a successful raid against sense offenders in the badlands outside Libria’s bland walls. Content warning: it involves a bad guy marching into a packed puppy pen with a shotgun.
There are no pets in Libria. In fact, the whole concept of keeping animals is alien (“Do they eat them?” wonders Brandt, looking genuinely perplexed). As the exterminator goes about his grim work, the supposedly unfeeling Preston flinches with every gunshot. Then one pup makes a break for it, and the faltering cleric finds himself nose-to-nose with his quarry. Silently connecting with that dog and vowing to save it is the moment Preston’s fate is irrevocably decided, and Bale gives it every intense and sinewy effort from his considerable actor’s toolkit. It is a bracingly earnest moment. In some other not-too-distant future, Bale will inevitably receive at least one lifetime achievement award. When they crank up the highlight reel featuring The Fighter, Vice, The Dark Knight and all the rest, there had better be some puppy love for Equilibrium or I will start my own revolution.
Equilibrium is available to rent digitally in the US and UK