RECAP: Equilibrium

Equilibrium (2002): Kurt Wimmer

Have you wanted to watch a movie in which emotionless automatons kill each other with guns in a sophisticated, statistically precise gun fighting method, and for that movie to not be a TransformersEquilibrium is a movie for you.

After the Third World War, humanity decided it could not survive a fourth. A drug was invented that suppressed all emotion, rendering war, crime, and violent outburst nonexistent.

Some people, however, refused to take this drug. They enjoy things like art and music and shit. They are DANGEROUS. To stomp out these people and their aesthetic pleasures, the powers that be created a group of über-police called, I kid you not, Grammaton Clerics.

Using special martial arts and dressed all in black, these clerics are the best at rooting out and destroying emotional content.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: In an emotionally repressed future society, war is a thing of the past and the only crime is…to feel. 

Hero (2/10)

John Preston (Christian Bale) is the nation’s best Grammaton Cleric. For years he’s led the team of clerics who fight sense crime among the people who live in a part of the inner city called the Nethers.

Preston opens the film tracking some sense crime bastards. He and his partner Partridge (Sean Bean) annihilate a group of heavily armed men and women hoarding some classic paintings. One of those painting is the Mona Lisa, a work which affects Preston not at all.

Grammaton Cleric John Preston and two guns.

Preston is clearly the best cleric working the beat. It seems he can smell the paintings, stacked beneath floorboards, before they are discovered. He orders them burned and returns to headquarters to enjoy another job well done.

Well, “enjoy” might not be the best word. Like most of the population, Preston injects Prozium II into his neck every day. Prozium dulls emotions, those hormonal bursts considered responsible for war, murder, and lesser crimes.

The emotionless society has wiped out those problems, but at what cost? Clerics like Preston don’t, at first, ask that question. He cannot “enjoy” a job well done any more than he can feel sorry for a criminal. He can say “I’m sorry,” but does he know what that means?

Preston’s partner has asked those questions. Partridge steals a copy of Yeats poetry from the initial raid and barely hides it at all. Turns out he’s been stealing evidence for years, and he’s felt a lot of feelings thanks to those works of art. Feeling feelings is a capital crime.

“Don’t Ask Me About the Pear Tree” Partridge. He, being Sean Bean, is not long for this movie.

Preston is tasked with bringing in his partner. Instead he kills him, in a dramatic scene in which Preston shoots his partner through the poetry book.

Life changes quickly for Preston after that. His boss questions his loyalty; he gets a new empathetic partner; he stops taking Prozium.

Preston starts to feel immediately. He strips translucent paper from his window so he can watch rain fall over his city. The image makes him weep. He feels for his long-dead wife, whose execution he watched, and for a recently arrested feeler of feelings named O’Brien (Emily Watson). (Yes, this 1984-cribbed movie has an O’Brien in it.)

For a guy who is great at his job, Preston is awful at hiding rebelliousness. He acts as if he wants to be caught. Preston can’t even successfully hide a book he plans to steal in a coat pocket.

Perhaps the finest moment in Equilibrium occurs one afternoon when Preston and his new partner Brandt (Taye Diggs) break up a ring of sense crime offenders. Outside their compound they find a kennel of dogs. Preston watches the dogs killed, because they might provoke feelings. He stops the executions when he spots the one thing he can’t bear to watch die–a puppy.

This puppy is as emotionally powerful as Helen of Troy.

Equilibrium is the movie in which Christian Bale can’t bear the thought of a puppy dying. It’s John Wick before John Wick was John Wick. Later, Preston drives into the city one night to release the puppy, and it almost costs him his life. Instead, Preston kills a half-dozen arresting officers, because they would have killed the puppy. The movie doesn’t realize that this is funny, and that’s a problem.

Bale has the perfect face for a thoughtless killing machine. With wide cheekbones, he appears engineered to kill anyone with feelings. If you want an actor who looks like he’ll chew your face off, Bale is your guy.

Preston transforms from terminator-like automaton to Feeling Man across a few scenes. He’s pretty good at it, though he sucks at hiding it. In one scene, Brandt catches him rearranging his desk, which you might do if you felt bored by it. Preston watches old videos of his wife at his desk, in front of everyone. He acts as if he wants to be caught. Think to much about all the ways one can feel and the movie’s premise will crumble. Watch out.

Brandt and his boss wanted Preston to turn to The Resistance, the group of feelers feeling things without their Prozium injections and appreciating art. The twist comes when we and Preston realize he’s been manipulated for years. Preston is too stupid to realize this.

Preston thought he was getting away with killing more than thirteen police officers without any suspicion falling on him. That’s very stupid, and it’s why he’s getting a low score.

Villain (3/10)

The chief villain is Father, a disembodied video presence who speaks to the people through the ubiquitous screens throughout the city (often on zeppelins).

Father commands the clerics through his mouthpiece, DuPont (Angus MacFayden). But, hey, guess what, DuPont turns out to be Father, assuming his image after the original Father died.

Father is the floating tele-presence spewing propaganda around the clock.

DuPont appears in real life quite often. He’s suspicious from the start of Preston, and he has every reason to be because Preston, the supposedly best cleric in the game, missed a couple of key sense crime offenders: his wife and his partner.

DuPont speaks toughly, and he often issues commands from a three-story screen in an otherwise empty room.

What DuPont/Father wants is an end to The Resistance. Turns out that he had a pretty good plan. He wanted to infiltrate The Resistance with a person he could trust…to betray him.

DuPont, de facto leader of whatever city they’re in.

DuPont decided Preston would be a good choice. It’s unclear whether or not he orchestrated Preston’s wife’s arrest, but he definitely knew about Partridge and his poetry reading.

DuPont sent test after test against Preston, hoping to break him and have him ally with The Resistance. Preston does, and happily. It’s a solid plan from DuPont’s standpoint.

Played by Angus MacFayden, it’s impossible to not recall Braveheart‘s Robert the Bruce in DuPont’s shouting. Bruce is tinged with helplessness, but DuPont isn’t. That’s my problem, though.

Well, I said the villain is DuPont. That’s a lie. The real villain is this fucking kid:

Equilibrium’s true villain, perhaps the scariest kid in world history. Kill this guy immediately.

Look at this monster. Equilibrium has no scarier moment, idea, or character.

Action/Effects (3/10)

Equilibrium opens with its only slightly believable action sequence. We know about emotions being crimes and Grammaton Clerics like John Preston are trained to arrest these criminals. We know that many people will die during this initial attack.

Preston follows a sweeper team breaking into a house harboring criminals who are looking at art. We don’t know why this is bad, only that it is, in Preston’s view.

The sweeper team drives the surviving art lovers/machine gun fanatics into a single room. Preston’s job is to finish them. The sweeper team shoots out the hinges on the door to room housing the survivors. Preston orders the bulbs blown as he enters the room.

The muzzle flash resembles the four-T symbol of the Grammaton.

From one end of the hall Preston sprints, two pistols drawn. The camera tracks his run down the hall and his leap into the door. As he falls into the room, his cohort turns out all the light. The camera continues to film alongside Preston as he slides on the door into darkness. It looks as slick as the black trenches Preston wears throughout the movie.

For an interminable time the screen is black. We hear others whispering. “Is he here?” “Where is he?” Those kinds of statements. Preston gathers his wits and then lights up the room with his gun barrels.

The scene cuts between Preston standing still, not moving even his torso, only flinging his arms around as if they are fun noodles, and the sorry souls getting shot to death because they looked once at a Titian.

It’s an action sequence resembling the cover of Queen II. On the surface it looks dope, but scratch beneath and find…nothing, a just metaphor for the movie. Through this point Equilibrium has spent more bullets than words. Hell, there were probably more bodies shot than words spoken in the first five minutes.

Effects appear minimal. The Taye Diggs face-slice is one I’ll never forget, but overall, these action sequences are all style and no substance, much like the movie as a whole. They look great onscreen, but don’t spend a moment thinking about them.

Sidekicks (2/8)

Preston kills his partner in the beginning for having feelings. Later, Preston’s new partner tries to kill him for the same reason. With friends like these…can anyone be a sidekick?

Actually, yes. Preston arrests a woman named O’Brien and harborer of outlawed emotional content. He speaks with her during her internment, trying to understand the new feelings he’s feeling. Turns out she communed with Partridge for a spell. Did she turn him or vice versa? We never know.

The wolves are about to eat you, Little Red, or, in this case, set you on fire.

Sentenced to die by immolation, O’Brien wears red on her execution day. Preston sprints to stop it, running through corridors the size of train tunnels to arrive at the burning chambers. As the clock ticks toward ignition, I expected Preston to stop it. He doesn’t, instead watching her burn through a slit in the door that allows people to be sure their prey has charred, I guess. Preston’s not saving O’Brien surprised me more than anything else that happened in the movie.

Henchmen (4/8)

Brandt is a capable cleric, perhaps the best in the biz. He claims to be an empath, capable of knowing what Preston feels before Preston knows he’s feeling. I thought people didn’t feel in this world. I guess what constitutes “feeling” changes in such an oppressive society.

Brandt is ready to make his career with Preston.

Brandt suspects Preston from the word go, but Preston is too myopic to realize it. Brandt acts like he might kind of be suspicious of Preston’s actions, but he fools no one but his quarry.

Preston kills at least a dozen officers. Late in the movie, he tries to plant the gun on Brandt, and the scheme appears, to Preston, to work, as he watches Brandt hauled from DuPont’s office.

Brandt has a terrific late-film reveal. The camera frames Preston in a chair answering questions for a lie detector/emotion test. The interlocutor asks Preston, “What is the easiest way to take away a cleric’s weapon?” Preston, confused, doesn’t answer. Brandt leans into frame, behind Preston, and says in his ear, “When you ask him for it.” That’s when you know, as Preston knows, that even Preston’s setup of Brandt was a setup of Preston.

Brandt is quickly, but memorably killed. Preston kills him in three sword moves, the final one slicing off Brandt’s face, which we watch slide to the floor.

Stunts (3/6)

Equilibrium is all about Gun kata. After studying countless videos of gun battles, the powers that be created a new martial art for close-quarters combat plus hand guns. It’s a perfect system.

At least, that’s how it’s depicted in the movie. Preston is the only cleric shown using Gun kata, but he exemplifies its strengths. His skill also glares over the weaknesses. Here’s how the movie presents it:

A cleric practicing Gun kata stands encircled by several gunmen. The cleric opens fire, preferably with two hand guns. He twists his arms around in seemingly random fashion, ending each arm movement with a shot. He never looks at his targets, but always registers a hit.

Preston kills people while they stand around him at point-blank range.

Gun kata is a solid idea very, very poorly executed. Karate + shootin’ = FUCK YEAH. That’s how it should be, but it ain’t. The stunt team repeatedly lets Preston beat and shoot to death his enemies as they stand within two feet of him.

Preston attacks a group of cops using only the handles of his guns. Eight of these guys wear helmets, and are all beaten several times each without landing a single blow on Preston. I know he’s highly trained and all, but one guy won’t take a step back and strike?

Preston killed these guys with only the gun grips, not firing a single bullet.

Time and again Preston stands still except to move his arms and is never shot or stabbed. Watch closely and you’ll see dozens of officers stand still and be shot. They have NO independent thought. I’ve seen better thinking by computer programs.

Climax (2/6)

Preston, having captured The Resistance (though falsely, as part of a plan to undermine the powers that be), is granted an audience with Father, who never grants such. He dresses in his finest whites, wearing a white sash, and dons a samurai sword.

Preston is surprised to find that he must undergo a test before meeting Father. But this will not be a martial test; it will be a polygraph test. Unlike our polygraphs, these tests only measure emotion, which is easy to do.

They strap Preston in and ask him one question. What’s the easiest way to disarm a cleric? Brandt leans in to answer, “You ask him for it.” Hey, Brandt, weren’t you supposed to be arrested? “I told you I’d make my career with you,” he says for the second time.

Preston is feeling in thick black ink on the polygraph page. He speaks with Father, who tells him that he had wanted to infiltrate the Resistance for some time, but he needed a man who thought like them. That man was Preston, set up for years to be the fall guy he doesn’t think he is. Oh, and also, DuPont was Father this whole time, using an avatar to maintain power.

DuPont is excited that in one day he captured The Resistance and Preston “entirely without incident.” Oh, my friend, there’s about to be a great swath of incidents.

The polygraph stops registering emotion, either because Preston has calmed himself, or, more likely, his feelings are off the charts. Out pop two handguns from his wrists. He gun katas the helmeted guards and leaves the test taker alive. To DuPont he promises, “I’m coming,” and shoots the video screen.

an incident

Preston enters a hall flanked by a dozen machine-gun-armed guards. Every inch of their outfits are black. Preston throws two clips down the hall, and they stand on their rounded ends. He shoots two guards and assumes a stance. The guards pick up their guns.

Preston steps into the hall and gun katas everyone. Only one guy gets off a shot. Others run at him. All are gunned down as Preston spins and shoots. As his clips empty, he turns the guns down to activate the backup clips housed in his sleeves.

Guards are standing still and being mowed down. The glass from their helmets cracks from the gun fire. Preston does a backflip for no reason and reaches the clips he slid down the hall earlier. You can bet he calmly slams the guns onto the clips, firing without missing a beat.

Preston runs out of ammo as more guards stream in. He sprints over a body and kicks a machine gun backward over his head like a rainbow soccer kick, blasting away with it in full stride. These final guards fall through the door they were guarding.

Preston, without a speck of dirt on his whites, walks into an octagonal room to find Brandt and DuPont. “You really should learn to knock,” DuPont says. Brandt smiles. Humor is a big-time emotion, so these guys belie their convictions.

Preston studies the room and tosses his gun aside. About eight guards, armed with swords, step from behind columns and surround Preston in the middle of the floor. Preston draws a sword from a guard and slices away. He takes another sword and slices more. Blood sprays. Swords break. The fight ends faster than its buildup. Again, Preston’s whites are unsullied.

DuPont finally looks scared. Brandt draws one of the two swords on the desk and gets ready. He moves toward Preston, who takes a sword lodged in a man’s gut as he ducks the first attack. Preston slices the right side, the left side, and upward, the final blow filmed from behind. Brandt’s sword and sleeved guns fall, and then he falls to his knees. Brandt turns back toward the camera, and his face slides off.

Yeah, his face slides off. Sick, sick burn.

DuPont finally moves to attack. He and Preston do battle with single hand guns. Two gun kata masters play Slapsies trying to shoot each other. They even twirl each other. It’s dancing, but neither would admit to it.

Preston disarms DuPont, who admits that he feels. He’s a sense offender, too. Hey, their brothers! No matter, Preston kills him.

There’s literally not a drop of blood on the floor after all this.

Jokes (0/4)

One of the most serious films I’ve ever seen. Not even a puppy can bring Equilibrium joy.

Setting (4/4)

Aside from Gun kata, Equilibrium‘s star is its architecture. Filmed mostly in Berlin, the producers found the, uh, best fascist architecture in the home to history’s most famous fascist government. Interiors are gigantic, exteriors more so. Walls appear to stretch into infinity.

Forget color. Everything is black, white, or gray. Well, everything but the yellow Prozium injections taken daily. Clerics wear black trench coats without a drop of another color on them. In the climax, Preston wears all white, without a drop of any other color. (Not even blood touches the whites.)

Loved the fashion in cough-thematrix-cough Equilibrium.

More than the dialogue and acting, the architecture, set designs, and colors paint the emotionless world Equilibrium‘s producers sought.

Commentary (1/2)

Equilibrium poses emotion as the driving force behind all crime and war. That’s the basest, most accurate take regarding war I’ve heard. The society has nullified emotion with a daily drug intake. Since then, no war, no crime.

I wonder why Prozium I didn’t work?

This is an interesting take that doesn’t work as well on a screen as it would in a book. It’s impossible for an actor to deliver a line devoid of all emotion. Something will be there. Several times in Equilibrium, try as they might, characters have outbursts. Emotionless humans would more likely behave as lobotomized automatons. They would never yell, or even smile, which they do here.

A better plan for the powers that be: eliminate only the bad emotions. Leave everyone happy all the time, or at least content. No war or crime, but also fun things like colors and flowers.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

For some reason all the Grammaton Clerics are men. Is it because women are the ones who “feel” too much? I would say the screenwriters believed as much when they penned the script, but I am certain they did not. I bet the thought didn’t cross their minds. I believe their implied prejudices bled onto the page.


  • (-1) You’d think a bunch of creative types could come up with a better name for their group than “The Resistance.”

Summary (22/68): 32%

Like its black-and-white palette, Equilibrium is a movie of extremes. Gun kata looks cool, and was filmed very well, but I didn’t believe it as a practical fighting method. Its practitioners stand encircled by shooters and, without moving, shoot dozens of rounds to kill everyone and not be harmed.

Characters are not emoting, except moments when they are, either by accident or disinterest. Preston orders Mona Lisa burned and thinks nothing of it. He saves a puppy but doesn’t consider it a friend. He looks at it as if he would name it Dog.

If Equilibrium is our warless future, count me out.