Equilibrium borrows liberally from great works of science fiction from the past. 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World should all get together and kick the living daylights out of this small-minded piece of rubbish, says Martin McGrath.

My mother always told me that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. If I stuck to that rule, this review would probably end right here.

Equilibrium stinks.

Sometimes I go into a cinema with such low expectations of a movie that, as the film unfolds, I find myself warming to it. I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdog and so, when everyone else hates something, I often find myself playing the devil’s advocate and standing up for even the worst movies. Anyone who has tried to have a sensible conversation with me about Stephen Speilberg’s Hook will know what I mean.Unfortunately, Equilibrium is so bad that not even I will defend it.

There are lots of things wrong with this film. The plot, such as it is, is trite, tedious and derivative. The dialogue is lazy and clichéd, even by Hollywood standards. The film criminally wastes the talents of decent actors like Sean Bean, Emily Watson and Angus MacFadyen. The action sequences, and there are many, are poorly realised in a low-budget, sub-Matrix style that frequently descends into laughable posing. The much-touted “gun-fu” fighting style is ridiculous and no amount of high-energy editing can save it. Worse still, the final confrontation between the hero John Preston (Christian Bale) and the Big-Brother-alike “Father” is an embarrassing anti-climax.

So Equilibrium profoundly fails to entertain as an action flick. But the story has pretensions to be more than just a big dumb action movie. Equilibrium has a message.

After a third world war the survivors create the state of Libria and set out to abolish violence by banning emotions. So concerned are they to prevent war that they train a heavily armed, very violent and huge army to kill those who would resist them and to destroy anything that would arouse emotion. This resistance, we see early in the film, includes a group of heavily armed art lovers who have hidden the Mona Lisa under some floorboards. It is never explained why, when the whole population is drugged to the eyeballs on “Prozium” to prevent them feeling anything, such works of art need to be destroyed but, with no time for silly questions like that, the government forces led by our hero batter down the door and get to work. With soldiers burning great works of art to enforce a totalitarian regime’s thought control in a society maintained by the use of a soma-like drug, Equilibrium makes plain its debt to some of greatest stories of the Twentieth Century. But any film willing to place itself in the footsteps of Fahrenheit 451, 1984 and Brave New World better have something important to say.

Sadly, Equilibrium is as stupid as it is violent.

Emotions, Equilibrium tells us, are good. Well, yes, not terribly profound perhaps, but hard to argue with. Emotions are good. Sad then that it is not emotion at the death of his wife, his friend or hundreds of innocent people that first drives our hero to take a stand against the forces of Libria’s regime. But, when they try to kill his new puppy, John Preston can take no more and bad guys start to tumble. I’m not kidding, it really is as stupid as it sounds.

Sad, too, that nowhere in the film does the hero show any sign of remorse for the dozens of men he, sometimes brutally, kills in pursuit of his goal. Worse, though, is the fact that the only emotions that do get any significant screen time in this film are hate and anger.

Totalitarian regimes are bad, Equilibrium says, and corrupt. Again, this is hard to argue with but it is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. This might have been a challenging statement when made by Wells or Huxley but they were writing at a time when fascist and communist regimes seemed attractive to many people. We now have the indisputable evidence of how terrible these regimes were – though Wells and Huxley, to their credit, had much less to go on, relying instead on their good instincts – and I wonder how many people sitting down to watch a Hollywood movie are really yearning for a dose of dictatorship to get the trains running on time.

The most unpleasant thing about Equilibrium, however, is that the alternative it offers to the docility imposed by the totalitarian Librian regime. What we are given instead of oppression is ultra-violence and the unquestioned notion that might shall be right. I’m not a squeamish viewer and I like an action movie as much as the next guy, but I was surprised by both the amount of violence in Equilibrium and the purpose it seems to serve. As the film ends, a revolutionary bloodbath erupts, and the final shot is off Bale beaming happily down on the destruction he has unleashed. Equilibrium tells us that freedom belongs to strong men with big guns. This is not a message that offers a challenge to totalitarian regimes. On the contrary, it comforts those who would impose their will on others by force of arms. It says that the strong shall prevail and, in doing so, it either fails to comprehend or deliberately distorts the literary sources from which it seems to draw inspiration. As such it is either a very stupid film or a rather nasty one. In any case, the story fails to live up to the standards of its literary predecessors and compounds matters by liberally “borrowing” images from other films (Metropolis and Blade Runner most obviously). As a director Wimmer has neither the skill nor the vision to live up to the standards of the films he references, all he succeeds in doing is reminding us of classics we have enjoyed in the past while we are stuck watching this rubbish. Equilibrium fails at every level and I cannot honestly recommend it to anyone. It doesn’t even make it into the “so bad it’s good” category.

A true turkey.

(Originally published in Matrix 160, Mar/Apr 2002)

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