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.