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Equilibrium

I borrowed Equilibrium with sense of trepidation. On the one hand it features some top flight talent. On the other hand I'd never heard of it. Not a good sign given the cast list.

The start wasn't promising. I'm wary of movies with prologues that use narration plus captions (and in this case accompanying images as well). Don't they trust that the audience can read? Or listen?

And unfortunately the rest of the movie didn't really rise much above the beginning. Equilibrium is a dystopian SF action thriller in which writer/director Kurt Wimmer more often than not resorts to cliche and hyperbole.

Take the world where emotion and art has been banned in order to prevent a fourth global war. It's a premise that's potentially interesting, except that we've got all the expected standbys from books such as 1984, Fahrenheit 451 and a raft of similar SF stories and the movies they've inspired: jackbooted stormtroopers dressed in black, mass crowd control via enforced drug taking, a governing elite that doesn't practice what it preaches, censorship, families spying and betraying each other, ever-present video screens spouting propaganda by a Big Brother (in this case "Father") figure, monochromatic colour schemes, Nazi swastika-inspired symbols. Probably the only cliche left out is the constant video camera surveillance, and I got the impression that might only have been omitted because it eased some plot points.

And while the premise has potential (even though it's far-fetched), it's never quite made clear if art stimulates emotion, is merely an expression of it, or causes it. I guess the drugs that the grey drab population takes en masse supresses emotions but presumably art that stimulates the senses - like music, poetry or paintings - counteracts these drugs. I suppose the distinction isn't terribly important in the scheme of events.

So we've got cliches of world building. Let's look at the cliches of plot.

John Preston is a member of a Jedi/Matrix inspired warrior/policeman organisation going by the incongruously "comicbook kewl" name of the Grammaton Clerics. His job is to hunt down and kill "sense" offenders, those who partake from the forbidden works and expose themselves to emotions. As soon as the volume of Yeats turned up five minutes in, the next hour unfolded like a roadmap.

Like Logan in Logan's Run he discovers the truth about the world around him and sure enough, the hunter becomes the hunted (though, granted, the movie never deteriorates into a straight chase film) and the enforcer of the regime will be the one to try to bring it down. Naturally there's a woman who plays a pivotal role in helping him see the error of his ways. Naturally too there's a partner (a Francis to Preston's Logan) who acts as his nemesis.

To be fair, there were times when the film wasn't entirely predictable. For instance, I knew that the film would almost certainly end in one of two ways: the nihilistic way or the Hollywood way. (There was a possibility that Wimmer would find a third, more ambiguous way, but that chance was very slim.) I felt pretty sure early on it would end the one way, but it actually turned out the other... though I'm not sure I liked the route the writer took to that ending. Other unexpected bits: Preston's relationship with "the girl" didn't quite follow the path I anticipated; ditto for his kids; ditto with MacFadyen's character. The showdown between Preston and Taye Diggs' character was entertaining, even if the button was unnecessary.

In another good scene Preston is given a choice to do something and while I could only see two ways out (both cliches), he found a third way. That third way comes back during the the climactic confrontation. I'm not sure if I like the fact that the moment served a second purpose or resent the fact that it was actually written to set up a fairly cheap reversal.

Also props to some subtle touches. In an effective moment Preston takes off his glove in the middle of a crowd to feel something as simple as a railing (and later, a wall... though that second instance served a plot purpose as well). It's an understated way of showing how he is becoming more receptive to the world around him. I liked also the unstated irony that Preston's greatest strength in his role as suppressor of all emotions is his intuition and empathy.

Cliches also abound in the violence. We've got police siege building shootouts, police knocking down doors, Matrix martial arts fights (though not as Hong Kong influenced and without bullet-time), a slicing gag lifted from Cube or Resident Evil or Blade (or maybe all of these) and lots and lots and lots of automatic weapons fire. Oh, and we've got stormtroopers so incompetent that they'd be rejected by George Lucas. Now these action sequences work reasonably well in their own right, especially given that it's obvious that the film didn't have Matrix-sized finances underwriting it. But ultimately the violence is so cartoonlike (almost literally - the action has a primitive animation jerkiness about it) that it undercuts the more serious character and plot moments.

Abiding by another genre convention the violence is hyped - the hero is supernaturally skilled - fast, able to take out dozens of the bad guys in seconds, virtually invulnerable - even though there isn't even a "He is The One" pseudo fantastic justification for his abilities. Just an awkward expositional video about the training the Clerics get that doesn't explain anything.

But the hyperbole extends beyond the violence. In an early scene Preston discovers a trove of artwork including... the Mona Lisa! Which he burns, cause art in this society - it's bad. I mean, come on: the Mona Lisa?! It's the most famous painting in the world so using it in this "scifi flick" (I'm deliberately using the derogatory term) just becomes... silly. It's as if Wimmer doesn't trust the audience to get the point with a lesser known painting. Or even an ordinary, unknown painting. Inevitably, later in the film, when we hear a classical piece of music it was from Beethoven's Ninth. (I figured it would either be Ludwig or Wolfgang.)

Now, silly and absurd could have worked for the film, if events such as this had been executed more often and with more flair... if Terry Gilliam had directed the movie for instance. But it wasn't that kind of movie. So the silly stayed ineffectively silly and never got effectively surreal.

Or take another stop in Preston's road of discovery: he takes in... a puppy! A cute puppy! The cutest puppy you've ever seen in an SF movie! Hyperbole. Silliness. But again, it could have worked. How? Well, there's a convention in Holllywood SF films that you can rape the wife, eviscerate the best friend, torture the hero... but you never kill the pet. (Think of all the dogs that have survived meteor strikes, alien invasions or monster attacks.) So in a pivotal moment Preston is given the opportunity to shoot the puppy in order to demonstrate that he's still part of the world order. Shooting the cute puppy would have been daring, even shocking. Does he? Guess.

Let me mention one more flaw in the writing. The exposition is pretty much continuous for the first thirty or forty minutes; blatant and mostly unnecessary. For instance, we've seen enough dystopian futures to get that when we see hundreds of dronelike people simultaneously inject themselves in the street (more hyperbole) that they're drugging the emotions out of themselves. We don't need three different explanations of this.

The lowpoint when it comes to exposition is an exchange that goes like this:

McFadyen: "Do you know who I am?"

Bale: "Yes I do. You are..." And then the hero provides the name, title and position of his superior.


So, I wasn't too impressed by the writing. A potentially interesting concept with some good variations on stock situations and characters but mostly treading over well worn, over-hyped ground. The direction, the production design and the set pieces were competent, but also too on the nose.

What about the cast? One or two of the bit players were atrocious (including the spearcarrier responsible for the first dialogue we hear) but the leads and supporting actors were actually all very good. Not entirely unexpected given the quality of the talent. The casting played well to each actor's strengths: Christian Bale exemplified repression (he'll make a good Batman I think), Emily Watson emotion, Taye Diggs competence, Angus MacFadyen superciliousness (except... what the hell was that German accent?), William Fichtner empathy, and Sean Bean early, noble death. Sean Pertwee in the small role of the Big Brotherly "Father" sounds eerily like John Hurt - ironic given Hurt starred in 1984 a couple of decades ago. There was some serious behind the camera help as well, like Jan De Bont and the Weinsteins.

I've been very critical about this film... probably more critical than it deserves. (Listening to the first few minutes of the audio commentary it's obvious that Wimmer is a smart, enthusiastic guy who has given plenty of thought and care to the film.) So why be such a picky bastard? Maybe it's because I learn more about writing by dissecting works that have potential but don't realise it. Or maybe it's because I'm frustrated by my own experience where my craftsmanship doesn't live up to my aspirations. So I take it out on someone else. Someone who, by the way, even as a B-grade writer, let's face it, is a heck of a lot more talented and successful than me. So chalk it up to jealousy. ;-)


Later: Having listened to both commentaries (one by Wimmer, the other by Wimmer and producer Lucas Foster) I now pay more respect to the film. Not because I've been turned around on the choices Wimmer made, but because he is able to explain them with passion, humour and objectivity. He's not blind to the film's flaws, some due to limitations in budget and some due to his own directorial inexperience. And while I still don't think the cliches and the hyperbole work terribly well, I'm prepared to acknowledge that this is because Wimmer approached the film with a different - but well articulated by him - aesthetic sense. I'll make a point of seeing the next film he's directing, the vampire pic Ultraviolet. (Which has the unfortunate honour of sharing both title and premise with the very stylish, very good British TV series from a few years ago, thoughh it's not a remake.)

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 17, 2005 1:41 AM.

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