Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Equilibrium (2002)

I recently dusted off (literally) and rewatched a DVD I have in my collection - the movie Equilibrium, which seems to want to bill itself as a competitor to The Matrix, but, whatever stylistic similarities they may share, the movie fares better when you're not trying to compare it to the most awesome sci-fi movie ever made. Anyway, The Matrix is a mind-fucker, Equilibrium is more of a traditional dystopian flick. But it's a really good one.

The premise requires a certain level of suspension of disbelief, but if you're not sitting there trying to poke holes in it, I think it's both fun to watch, and also has a lot to say about human nature and the importance of art. The idea is that, in this near future society, ravaged by the effects of a third world war, humanity has agreed (with the urging of a charismatic leader, affectionately labeled "Father") to sacrifice the dizzying highs of human emotion in order to eliminate the abysmal lows, which inevitably lead to the atrocities that man commits upon himself - most notably, war.

So, the population of this "enlightened" nation, Libria, is regularly dosed with a drug called Prozium, which reduces their capacity to feel (emotions). Anyone caught skipping their doses or otherwise displaying feelings is charged as a "sense offender" and is sentenced to execution. The state's most talented soldiers, known as Grammaton Clerics, trained in the art of gun kata - which is like martial arts with guns, using stances based on statistical predictions to optimize both the practitioner's survival and hit rates - are trained to locate sense offenders, and are regularly deployed outside the walls of Librium to mop up pockets of resistance and burn the artifacts of culture (e.g., literature, paintings, symphonies) they're often found to hoard.

Christian Bale is excellent as Librium's premiere Grammaton Cleric, displaying subtle nuances of feeling underneath his cold, emotionless exterior, as the story follows his introduction to the world of sense offending, and his struggle to hide his little acts of rebellion until they eventually grow into a conviction to try and sabotage Father's censurious regime. The movie is expertly balanced between scenes of action and drama, and I found it to be especially moving as an art lover. Even to a jaded postmodernist, I felt that it managed to effectively evoke the beauty of a Da Vinci painting, a Beethoven symphony, a W.B. Yeats poem. And one of the most touching scenes hinged on the beauty of something we so often take for granted - the simple rising of the sun.

Taken at face value, it seems a little unrealistic to believe that society would (could) ever stamp out human feeling to this level, but, honestly, we're not so far off from a world that would, like in the movie's opening, destroy a man's life for looking at a picture of a girl. We already embrace censorship, we just defend it by believing that its selective application is justified. The censorship of all art is thus a dishonest projection (if a valid warning) of the current state of fear; nevertheless, it's a captivating nightmare vision, and it makes you think about the importance of art as a record of human experience, and how dangerous to the very core of humanity a regime of censorship truly is.

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