Recently, I had the opportunity to show my brother the dystopian Thought Police action film Equilibrium. We have just a bit more time these days. In the current climate, where a great deal of fear surrounds the way we interact in society, a movie about Thought Police, dystopias caused by cataclysmic events, and a focus on emotions, especially how fear destroys us as a society, seems particularly relevant.
My brother and I watch movies and television series together. I have a list of must-see movies and television series I've wanted to show him, pieces of art that are my duty as his sister to pass on to the next generation (we have a significant age gap). He, in turn, has added to that list with some of his own favorites, things I might never have considered or known about otherwise. A fair exchange, in my opinion.
I realized partway through our viewing that it had been about a decade since I'd last watched this movie. This was not because it isn't good or worthy of repeat viewings. It is. No, it was more that this movie holds a special place in my heart as part of my list of consciousness-expanding movies, and, as such, I only really watch them when I'm in the right headspace.
As usual, SPOILER ALERT protocol should be followed. Expect everything from here on out to talk about major themes, moments, and reveals, and completely ruin the movie if you haven't seen it or can't compartmentalize. You have been warned.
A Melding of Themes
Due to cataclysmic events, the world we know succumbs to dictatorship with total control over the populace, (mis)information, and thought.
You're not crazy. You've seen this movie before, probably several times (maybe you even read the book, you gorgeous overachiever). After all, it's the start of movies like:
- 1984 (George Orwell)
- Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
- The Matrix movies (Wachowskis)
- V for Vendetta (Alan Moore)
- Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk) (okay, maybe not Fight Club, but bear with me)
It is not unlike 1984 that Equilibrium starts. In place of our former society, the powers that be decide that emotion is the source of all woe and should be summarily suppressed. Behold, a miracle drug is created that does just that, and, voilà, you have the perfect society that has been existing for some unknown amount of time. With emotion as the big sin, all art - music, film, paintings, books, pop culture, and more - has been labeled "EC-10: CONDEMNED". Any art found is destroyed, burned, for the sake of all mankind (Fahrenheit 451). Literal Thought Police directly observe the masses for any hints of disobedience or nonconformity, referred to here as "sense offense" and carts them off for "processing" (which almost always ends in incineration).
Enter the hero, John Preston, Grammaton Cleric, an extraordinary figure who is a master in this world's martial art, as well as intuitively-capable of getting into the minds of these "sense offenders", an irony that should not be lost on the audience. In proper messiah style, he uses his abilities - once he has his awakening - to bring down this dystopia (The Matrix). As for how he and his fellow revolutionaries accomplish this, well...how does Fight Club end again?
One of the things they do that's unique is that this is barely a sci-fi movie. We're not given much of a clue as to when this takes place or when this new world order began. With some of our current issues, societal collapse could be just a couple of decades down the road (yes, that soon). Furthermore, the technology isn't all that far advanced, and the "wonder drug" Prozium II is all too recognizable. As far as we know, this is simply an alternate universe that is much like our own in many respects, one that under the right circumstances (and wrong choices) could have been our world right now. And isn't that a frightening thought?
Look, if you're going to purloin aspects of previous work (don't worry; there really are no original stories, just original approaches), you can't do much better than these films as a basis for your story and worldbuilding. Despite the obvious homages, references, or direct poaching of aspects of these films, however, it isn't what they copied that makes the film so good. It's what they made their own. So, if you're going to put a bunch of movies together to make a new movie, Equilibrium stands as an example of doing it well.
The Sean Bean Stamp of Approval
If you didn't already know, Sean Bean's death is synonymous with good film picks. Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Goldeneye...those are just my favorites. There is a whole list going back to the '80s of more than a dozen films in which the actor bites it in some way. It's gotten so bad that Sean has begun refusing roles where he dies. I will eventually binge this list, but assuredly not every single one he dies in can be all that great, can it?
I have to say, though, that the theory stands in this case. Don't worry; this is only a small spoiler, since it happens early in the movie. Sean Bean's death at the hands of his Cleric partner and closest friend John (if one can have friends without emotion) is literally poetic. In such a short span of screentime, dialogue, and facial expression, Sean's performance tells you everything you need to know about why this fight will be worth the pain and effort, and it serves as a catalyst for what will come throughout the rest of the story.
I rank this death 3rd in the overall list, right behind The Fellowship of the Ring and Game of Thrones.
Gun Katas and the Art of Selling a Dystopia
"A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having." ~V
Yes, a revolution needs dancing...or cool, unique martial arts styles.
I've come to the conclusion that if you really want to sneak your message into a really good dystopian film these days, you need some badass fighting styles thrown in there to distract people from the fact you're basically telling people to defy the system. V for Vendetta has those sai-like daggers (and V's verbal virtuosity), The Matrix movies have John Wick, Dark City has Tuning, Hunger Games has the bow and arrow, and Fight Club...Fight Club has soap, and, well, Fight Club (but we don't talk about that).
Equilibrium has Gun Katas. Gun Katas, by the film's own assertion, were developed through science to create maximum kill zones while protecting the Grammaton Cleric. It's a martial art specific to this world and this movie.
This is worldbuilding at its best, and they give you just enough science to suspend your disbelief, but not so much that I have to laugh at them while I pick it apart myself. Furthermore, while I'm sure weapons experts and scientists could find some flaws in the logic here, it's not the science of the martial art that's important. The Gun Kata is a tool through which writer/director Kurt Wimmer chose to tell his story. If you're trying to judge it based on absolutes of scientific fact, you're missing the message.
That said, the Gun Katas are accurate from a martial arts philosophy standpoint. The movie borrows from several styles, including the many schools of samurai sword fighting. Likewise, they use some of the samurai philosophy in the movie to highlight the emotionless aspects of their martial art, and I believe this misinterpretation of these beautiful philosophies does a great job of illustrating the lack of balance in the world.
The truth is that the best dystopias have something unique about them. Blade Runner's style set the standard in cinema for the Cyberpunk movement that began with writers like Phillip K. Dick (who wrote the original novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? upon which Blade Runner is based). The Matrix surprised us all with the mystery on the other side of the Red Pill, and then surprised us again by taking the revolution and making it spiritual. Fight Club takes the view that the world we're living in right now is the dystopia, and then questions its own frame of reference.
Equilibrium's true charm, perhaps, is that it takes something so primary yet so complex as human emotion, and makes that the central focus. Whereas many dystopian films will reference or allude to emotion as peripherally relevant to the struggle and revolution ("Gee, I hate this dystopia. Let's revolt!"), Equilibrium puts it front and center. This movie isn't really about a special style of martial arts or explosions...it's not even really about revolution.
It's about how fundamentally our senses affect our emotions.
A Hierarchy of Senses
One of my favorite things about this movie is John Preston's emotional journey as he awakens to his senses. Rather than having a moment where he is assailed from all directions by sensory input, like I've seen in some movies or series, they reveal each of the senses to John (and thus the audience) gradually, methodically. They take their time showing us how each one affects him, layering on the experiences that will lead him inexorably to revolution.
Now, here's where things get interesting.
While studying American Sign Language, I came across statistics detailing the percentage of input received by the brain from each sense organ. Always at the top of studies on the subject is vision, since the eyes take in at least 80% of information processed by the brain. After this, things get a bit hinky. Depending on what study you read, or theory you go by, the second-highest percentage is usually received by either touch (skin) or hearing (ears). Every now and again, you will see the nose come in second, since the sense of smell is so often related to memory and often evokes a sense of home. The tongue almost always comes in last, particularly because a great deal of taste input is helped along by the sense of smell.
Okay, still with me? Because this progression mirrors John's own awakening, and it's surprisingly clever.
VisionAfter the Sean Bean "I approve this movie" scene, John accidentally breaks a vial of his Prozium. He fails to replace it, and just 24 hrs after missing his last dose, John awakens to the pattering of rain on his window, the rivulets of water catching his vision. Stricken, he stumbles from his bed and claws off the translucent paper which blocks the view of his city. Fresh from rain and backlit by a rising sun, the city appears before him as it never has, and he is in awe. He is seeing it truly for the first time.
This is a perfect visual for this moment. People who have seen the sun rise and set thousands of times still experience awe in the moment. This is a spiritual awakening, a new beginning. He literally wakes from slumber, and so do his emotions for the first time in his life. It is a brand new day, a new world to be experienced.
TouchThe second major awakening comes shortly thereafter, and is a more measured awakening, happening continuously throughout the day, which is appropriate given our everyday ordinary relationship with the touch of objects in our lives. His experience as he begins to touch is anything but ordinary, however.
Perceptive as ever, he notices a woman's hand gliding along a railing as the masses move up a set of stairs. Is she a sense offender? One might think so, given that she is the only one among the throng who has no gloves on, though she appears to take no more notice of the railing than anyone else. John removes his glove, allowing his own hand to run along the railing. It is tentative, curious. At this point, he has no reason to believe that something so mundane should matter. However, like an inquisitor (which he is in many respects), he tests this newfound input. He knows full well he may get this opportunity only once. Whether he goes back to his staid existence (and his uncertainty suggests he is still considering it) or is caught and processed, he seeks to understand.
He does this again later, shedding his gloves to brush his fingers along the bullet-hole riddled corridor walls, and now it seems more purposeful, more knowing. It as though - having experienced something so amazing as that sunrise, as a simple touch - he wishes to savor the moment, savor the day. This may be the last time he experiences anything real.
But it's not, and his next awakening will affect everything that comes after it.
HearingAs he runs his hand along that corridor wall, light catches his eye from a bullet hole. There is a hidden room full of treasures on the other side of that wall. Once inside, he runs his hands over everything, picking up items and fiddling with them. He turns on an old phonograph and continues along, but he freezes as the first strains of Beethoven's 9th symphony can be heard.
Thunderstruck, he drops the snowglobe in his hands to let it smash upon the floor. This is another well-crafted image, as is the sight of him dropping into a chair a mere moment later and weeping in realization of all he has been robbed of for so long.
This scene always blows me away. That the world is a culture that has never known Beethoven, not even to discuss him as a historical figure, is surreal enough. That John has never experienced music is mind-boggling, and I give credit to Christian Bale for depicting this moment so well. This is the power of music, and it is utterly fitting that this be the thing that breaks him down. He is changed. Even as he watches the cache of condemned items burn, you can see it in his face: he will remember that piece of music, every note of it, for the rest of his life.
This is the point of no return.
SmellFrom here, John more actively seeks out his emotions. In a mirror of his former partner, he "confiscates" a book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes. Yet his newfound obsession also leads him to dig through the former possessions of Mary O'Brien, a sense offender he helped capture and the lover of his dead partner. He pulls a red ribbon from the box, and holds it up to his face, inhaling the scent of Mary's perfume. Perhaps his partner once did the same.
Smell, being most associated with memory, can leave an incredibly powerful impression, and indeed, we see this when he visits her again. He has made the connection with Mary through the shared relationship of his dead partner. Through her he remembers his friend, feels guilt, feels love and attraction. She has come to represent everything that is sense in this regard, and when they argue, ending with his pinning her to the table in the interrogation room, he is shocked by his own behavior, as well as shocked by their proximity. Here the smell is in its fullest intensity as she is literally inches from him, and that is where I believe he experiences the final sense...
TasteThe logical experience for this sense is food, and one has to imagine that John had consumed food since his last dose of Prozium, yet I can't imagine any society that has so eschewed emotion and the arts would even bother with creating food to delight a palette that can't recognize it. Likely, the food they eat is bland; in fact, a look at it tells us so: bland flakes that his daughter seems utterly disinterested in consuming. Why show that as part of his awakening? It would likely do nothing, and goes, rightfully, unseen.
No, it is not food that triggers this particular sense.
It is Mary that triggers in him a need to taste; she brings forth in him a hunger, a lust. Like the influence of smell over the taste of food, it is her scent that helps bring forth this hunger. This is confirmed when he goes to see Jurgen, leader of the Underground (the faction rising up against the powers that be), who tells him that what he feels "will never be satisfied without falling yourself into her." It is here that John experiences the most fundamental yet important of emotions, those surrounding human desire: physical lust and romantic love. As it does with so many humans, it is one that drives him over the edge, to near ruin.
That Pesky Sixth SenseAs you watch the movie, it becomes apparent that John is special. It is remarked upon that he is particularly skilled at finding sense offenders and knowing where they hide their caches of EC-10 contraband. That he displays a high level of intuition is not an irony that should be ignored. The assumption here alludes to the idea that there is some instinct that John follows. Whether instinct is tied to emotion or not is the question.
For one example, self-preservation is deeply rooted in our instinct, and fear is a natural reaction to that instinct. Throughout the film, when certain members of the emotionally-castrated populace are in mortal peril, they have what can only be described as a fear reaction. This should not happen if Prozium works as advertised, and hints at a flaw in the system. As the lie detector test administrator aptly remarks before all hell breaks loose: "Shit." The swat/round-up squad leader has a similar reaction in the Nethers (the area outside the "protection" of the city where some sense offenders hide) right before John kills them all over a puppy (and we, the audience, are sort of fine with that).
It's my theory that this instinct breaks through the Prozium, as self-preservation is one of the greatest of motivators, and allows these humans to experience fear. Of course, as fear is not something we generally desire, and these characters nearly always die afterward, it is tough to say whether this sudden emotional state could permanently break through. That's probably just as well, because, well...isn't that what got us all here in the first place?
Fear: The Real Danger
This instinctual reaction begs the question of what use fear is to a society that should feel nothing.
The fact that citizens can experience fear leads one to conclude that Prozium doesn't suppress all emotion, only the ones that are inconvenient to keeping people complacent. It is here that the hypocrisy of a dystopian society makes itself known, because fear makes people vulnerable and gullible.
The powers that be may effect change to the rules of society for its "own good" but that does not mean the powers that be must or will follow those rules. Though it's barely referenced out loud, the fact that the Vice Council Dupont's office is full of items that would be sense offense of the highest order means he's very well aware of the importance of emotion and has no intention of giving it up himself. "Let me take on the burden of emotion so you won't have to," he seems to say, as if to soothe, to allay the worry of choice and responsibility.
This hypocrisy is perhaps the scariest part and at the heart of these dystopian films...the idea that those who extol the virtues and assert the necessity of subscribing to a certain social convention will not buy in themselves and are merely using such social mores to manipulate themselves into a position of absolute power over the people. For leaders to have no checks on their behavior based on that society's shared morality while exacting cruel punishments on the populace for failing to do the same is the very definition of a tyrant. And they always start by convincing people they are here to take away the source of their fears. Dupont is no different than any other despot, either in a fictional dystopia or in our own history. He feeds on people's fear.
Throughout history, people have been motivated by fear to commit atrocious acts, to oppress and condemn, to destroy others in the name of safety and survival, but nowhere do we do this more effectively and horrifyingly as we do it to ourselves. It is our most insidious and self-destructive emotion.
Equilibrium asks: Are the emotional reactions we have toward paintings, pieces of music, or a sunrise after a rainy night worth the trouble of the hate, violence, despair and war that comes from fear?
The answer: Yes, because there's a difference between using and controlling your emotions (as John does at the end of the film) and letting your emotions control you.
Furthermore, letting fear of our own failure lead us to farm out a piece of our fundamental selves for someone else to manage conveys no safety or responsibility on either side, no true conscience. That's the real danger.
"You exist to continue your existence. What's the point?"
1. Red is often used in movies to represent intense color and emotion. Red is "the bad color" in M. Shyamalan's The Village, and Schindler's List uses the color to paint over a single character in one of the most intense scenes of the film.
Released: December 6, 2002
Director: Kurt Wimmer
Writer: Kurt Wimmer
Music: Klaus Bedelt
Actors/Actresses: Christian Bale, Taye Diggs, Emily Watson, Sean Bean, William Fichtner, Angus MacFadyen
© 2020 Content property of Andromeda Ross, all rights reserved.