equilibrium: some dystopias are more dystopic than others

I watched Equilibrium again the other day. Equilibrium is one of those movies that relies on tropes so much that it’s hard to even effectively evaluate how well it sets up its premise. In this case, it’s a fascist dystopia thing, which you quickly get from the glares of the authority figures and the persecution of seemingly random people.

The idea is that a great war destroyed civilization in the past, and the survivors identified emotion as the primary cause of war and death, so feelings have been outlawed, along with all sorts of emotion-inciting art like the Mona Lisa. The city where (apparently) everyone lives is exactly the kind of cold metallic place you’d expect of a dystopia, and the palette of the city and the movie is the color of drab. For reasons never really explained, uniformed mini-fascist children stand around public thoroughfares picking out over-emotive pedestrians for prosecution.

The ranking enforcers of the no-emotion regime are called “clerics.” One of their best is Preston, played by Christian Bale. You already know where this is going, right? Preston discovers that, after all, emotions are pretty important.

Though this whole character arc is a bit predictable, Bale is still a really compelling guy pretty much no matter what he’s doing. The problem I had with this movie was that I could never quite map the emotion-police concept onto any real sociological or political issue.

They’re fascists, and of course that’s evil, but the anti-emotion rhetoric doesn’t remind me of anything that seems relevant to America 2013, so the movie doesn’t seem like it’s commenting on anything other than the obvious idea that fascists are, you know, horrible. And the anti-emotion concept is just at odds with real fascist regimes, which, at least in my completely unschooled impression of them, don’t eschew emotion — they embrace it, especially that quintessential fascist emotion, hostility.

So it’s hard to read what Equilibrium‘s dystopia is meant to be a comment on. I started thinking of other dystopian movies and landed on two, Demolition Man and Gattaca. Most of Demolition Man takes place in 2032, in a future where they’ve tried to outlaw vice, including unmediated sex. (As I remember it, they get it on through some kind of machine.) Now this seems like a relevant issue — a smoking ban writ really large — and the counter-philosophy couldn’t have any better spokesman than the guy they got for the gig of rebel leader in that movie, Dennis Leary. Score one for dialectic.

Gattaca was even more of a straight-up dystopia than Demolition Man. Parents in the world of Gattaca have a high degree of control over the genes of their children, with the result that some people with confirmed inferior genetics are doomed to menial positions. In theory it’s about genetic planning, but the movie seems more like a story about class. Its message was easy to get: We can’t let science tell us what humans are capable of or undersell ourselves on the potential of determination. I don’t know if I’m that rah-rah about human potential, but at least there was an identifiable social issue in the movie.

That’s the problem with Equilibrium. It doesn’t really make that connection. In modern America, nobody is suggesting we burn art because it makes us think dark thoughts. Instead, we just ignore it.

2 thoughts on “equilibrium: some dystopias are more dystopic than others

  1. Ah, equilibrium. I find the premise of this movie so absurd that I’m surprised you’d want to comment on it. I mean, it’s kind of a childish evocation of fascism; but one that despite its simplicity has an occasional moment of emotional resonance with the viewer – primarily due to Bale’s acting.

    Although, what is interesting in this movie is the fantastically creative fight choreography. This is a movie that is a sci-fi action movie set in a dystopian future that came out hot on the heels of The Matrix, which, I assume we all agree, is likely to be the greatest and most influential movie of that description for some time. The Matrix gave genre action movies a swift kung-fu kick to the head, in super slo-mo, such that one would for years afterward have to say of any action movie: “Would I have had more enjoyment if I’d just rewatched The Matrix instead?” I think The Matrix succeeds as an action movie by joining the action style with the setting and plot of the larger film: it provides a world where the kind of action scenes the heroes execute are almost a necessary consequence of the exposition. We see the characters slow or accelerate time, bend or suspend gravity, survive inhuman trauma, all in the service of their hand-to-hand combat. At the same time, it’s not a martial arts movie where characters inexplicably eschew the pragmatism offered by high caliber weapons. Of course, what really seals the deal, is that these techniques, these conceits, enable cooler-looking, more creative action shots and camera calisthenics than was previously employed in action movies.

    Equilibrium, like almost all subsequent action movies, aped some of these elements from The Matrix. What’s surprising is how well it worked; and how Equilibrium explores a style of action scene rarely filmed. The whole action-style premise is the Gun Kata; a scientific analysis of innumerable gun fights and the distributions of bullet trajectories, which enables a skilled Gun Kata practitioner to dodge bullets during a gun fight. This sounds sort of hard to swallow, at least in whole, but in part it actually is true: there are similar analyses done of gunfights now, although the results of studying these are much less dramatic. In Equilibrium, the results are artistic. It turns each gun fight into a dance, literally, as Bale’s character must strike all kinds of unusual poses and contortions mid-firefight, to put his vital organs in the statistically least likely bullet trajectories. This provides a great excuse for what was already an evident trend in action-movies: fight scenes are choreographed dances, with dancers employed as stunt directors or even actors (cf. Darth Maul, Episode One), and action judged not on plausibility but (let’s call it) filmability. Essentially, Gun Kata provides an excuse for Equilibrium fight scenes to have their own signature look and feel. Something different from other films. Equilibrium didn’t copy The Matrix’s super-slo-mo flying kicks, it copied the idea of bringing a unique and original gestalt and to the fight scenes.

    The final fight scene in Equilibrium is a triumph of action choreography. In a duel between Gun Kata gurus, both combatants pull handguns at point blank range and have a hand-to-hand duel, guns in hand, where they use traditional kung-fu strikes and blocks to deflect their opponent’s line of fire or enable their own. It is brilliantly thrilling in the number of gunshots going off within inches of the hero’s face; the pacing of it frenetic and daunting – the opposite of The Matrix super-slo-mo. See minute 3+ of this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6B1XLLA_Tw

    The first three minutes of that link, of course, are a remake of The Matrix’s elevator lobby scene. But is the creative inspiration street between these two one-way, or does Keanu’s outfit in the Matrix sequels look exactly like Bale’s back wool button-up trenchcoat-dress?

    • I think you’ve hit on the new standard that The Matrix introduced: Now it feels as though an action scene can offer both a kind of elegance AND a good fight. But also, like you’re saying, it’s hard to find good excuses for this (as in, an excuse to engage in hand-to-hand combat instead of just shooting at someone). I agree, there’s a lot of cool stuff in Equilibrium, but I think it’s a good example of what happens when the action is good but the plot isn’t.

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