Millennial Malaise 14: Equilibrium

In Which it Feels Good to Feel Again

The influence of The Matrix is monumental. Nearly every action movie released in the last 20 years is in conversation with it in some way. Either aping its stylistic techniques directly or knowingly avoiding them. In the immediate years after the The Matrix’s release you could still measure its impact on films that were only obliquely similar. Certainly the bullet ballet pyrotechnics and nu-metal score for Mission: Impossible 2 owe a debt to the Wachowskis’ success, and you can see the staggering box office for Ang Lee’s meditative wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as an American audience going mad for some more Yuen Wo Ping choreographed wire-fu. The specific aesthetics of cyberpunk, nu-metal, and CG inflected martial arts action seeped into the mainstream to the point where you couldn’t walk into a theater between 1999 and 2004 without stumbling into a film that tries to do at least one of them.

But it was rarer for a film to try and do it all. To replicate not just aspects of The Matrix, but to imitate nearly every beat of the film fully. The tics of dystopia, martial arts and gunplay, leather, philosophy, nu-metal all swirled together into a heady copy cat stew. The standard bearer of this shameless homage has to be Kurt Wimmer’s 2002 actioner Equilibrium; a film that painfully wants to be the The Matrix but can’t get out of its own way to be either dumb fun or serious sci-fi. Equilibrium highlights one of the most damaging effects of The Matrix’s success. That every genre/action/thriller can be brought higher with slapdash philosophy. Equilibrium is 1984 by way of a Mountain Dew ad in a gaming magazine. A movie that wants to simultaneously impress you with its “depth” and dazzle you with its “style” when it can’t coherently hold those things together.

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You see in the bleak dystopian future the government has decided to outlaw emotions after WWIII nearly wipes out humanity. How do they do this you ask. Well the plan is a two-pronged: one prong is initiating compulsory drug intake on the populace that limits feeling, the other prong is an elite squad of assassins known as Grammaton Clerics who know the secret art of Gun-Kata (a combination of gun play and karate). They break into dissidents’ houses, burn their art, and murder the rest in a hyper stylized manner. John Preston (Christian Bale) is the chief Cleric who has a crisis of consciousness after his partner (Sean Bean, unsurprisingly biting the bullet before the end of the first act) begins to rebel and feel emotion. Through this Preston realizes how horrible the government is, re-engages with his feelings, joins the rebellion, and tries to outfox his new partner Andrew (Taye Diggs) and take down his boss DuPont (Angus Macfadyen).

It’s a fairly rote sci-fi affair, but with The Matrix in the recent rear view (Equilibrium was shot in 2000) it feels like Wimmer was emboldened to make his silly movie important. The casting of serious character actors and award winners (Emily Watson pops up as a love interest) gives away the intention here. You don’t lead  a movie with Christian Bale if you don’t think you have an interesting point to make.

Bale serves as the central crux of the problems with Equilibrium. Mainly, this dumb movie would have been better if it was dumber. The Gun-Kata, the overdone latex Stormtrooper costume design, the grinding techno/nu-metal score all promise a sort of camp classic. A perfectly crystallized time capsule of early 00’s “ow the edge” aestheticism. Instead we are treated to scene after scene of Bale staring into the middle distance pretending not to feel something, and then discovering those recessed emotions. This includes scenes of Bale crying at the sight of the sunrise, sensually touching a handrail with his ungloved hand, and doing a full breakdown in the middle of the street. He keeps trying to make us buy into Preston’s emotional awakening, but it can’t help but look silly in it’s overblown theatrics juxtaposed with the goofy execution of the action.

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This dissonance extends to every corner of the film. In this supposedly emotionless world you can certainly see emotional choices being made all the time. The government uses hyperbolic rhetoric to keep the populace under control, but these bloviations play more off emotional responses than rational ones. If feeling is outlawed than why are the powers that be yelling so goddamn much? The biggest perpetrator of this offense is Taye Diggs, an actor with great offhand charm and charisma that make zero sense in the film’s context. How come he hasn’t been arrested for a “Sense Offense” when he spends the whole film cracking wise and smirking, those are emotions.

The film tries to circumnavigate some of these narrative issues by proclaiming the bad guys don’t follow their own doctrine (but only in a single tossed off line of dialog) but it’s too late, and the dissonance proves too grating to take the world and ideas of the film seriously. And yet it insists on try hard, in your face bullshit. The worst example being a scene where the faux-Stormtroopers literally gun down a kennel of puppies. It’s a moment where you can feel Wimmer rubbing your face in his coolness, parading around the idea of, “you didn’t think I would go there, but I totally did.”

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The dog slaughter serves as a frustrating counterpoint to what could be some frothy overdone action. You come to Equilibrium for the Gun-Kata and walk away disappointed because of how little of it is in the actual film, instead you’re forced through scene after scene of unearned angst to get to the slightest bit of trashy fireworks. And the Gun-Kata is only half cool. Where the action in The Matrix is dynamic and exciting, the fights in Equilibrium are static, and until the very end, unchanging. Almost all of them occur with Bale standing in the center of a group of combatants and swooshing his arms around (with CG assistance) into martial arts poses, and then firing his guns. It seems appropriate that this format of combat is so stationary as it is completed disconnected from Preston’s emotional arc. He starts the film as the best Cleric and ends it in the same place, there is never a physical obstacle he can’t overcome, there is no synthesis of character and action in the movie.

There are moments when the trashiness is able to shine through. There’s a cheeky sparring match between Bale and Diggs that completely replicates the “I Know Kung Fu” sequence from The Matrix. Bale is able to overdo it a couple of times to humorous ends (the best being a dramatic zoom into his iris as the strains of Beethoven’s 9th are played). And there’s the absolutely hilarious final confrontation between Diggs and Bale where Bale quickly cuts off Diggs’ face, and the CGI countenance just sloughs off his head. That’s the kind of stuff that, if there was more of it, would turn Equilibrium into a popcorn delight. Instead Wimmer insists on the dog murder and angst to carry a majority of the runtime, and doesn’t feel content to let the work stand as a piece of pulp.

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Equilibrium serves as the apotheosis of post-Matrix stylistic thievery. It traffics in nearly identical ideas to an entirely lesser effect, and the staggering success of the Wachowskis’ work is probably the only reason this got a big budget and prime holiday release. Now it stands as a curio from a period of Hollywood filmmaking that people would relegate to the dustbin of history. Nothing more than a source of amusing, “look at this dumb shit,” gifs and exhausted befuddlement at turn of the century culture.

Odds and Ends

  • Never a good sign when a film starts with a text scrawl and a voice over.
  • It makes sense that the only film Wimmer directed after this was Ultraviolet.
  • Explicitly making the new society based on Nazi Germany feels like a thematic mistake. After all the Nazis were famous for never displaying any sort of emotion whatsoever.
  • I just want some junk to be fun, no pontification needed.

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Next Week: I’ll look back to the dark days of the superhero film with 1997’s Spawn. Pray for Jeremy.