Another day, another dystopia. In Kurt Wimmer’s 2002 sci-fi film, the world has been devastated by a Third World War, from which the authoritarian state of Libria has emerged. Its leader, known only as Father, rules that human emotion is the root of all conflict, so Librian citizens must regularly take a drug called Prozium which suppresses any form of feeling. Father’s fascistic laws are lethally enforced by the ruthless Grammaton Clerics, including Christian Bale’s character who’s another badass called John.
Equilibrium is so sub-Matrix it hurts. The long black coats, the techno music, the stylised action… everywhere you look there’s a reminder that this isn’t The Matrix. It’s still a cool film though, built on an interesting philosophical idea. Libria is free of war, pain and hatred, but at what cost? Well, at the cost of any good characters. It’s an unfortunate result of the premise that almost everyone is either emotionless or has to pretend to be emotionless, making it hard to root for anyone on screen. It’s also littered with some unbelievably clunky moments, most memorably the dog scene which is quite frankly hilarious. There’s a child who’s a sort of cross between the kid from The Omen and Adolf Hitler, and a performance from Sean Bean which is predictably ill-fated and Yorkshire. But it is a good piece of sci-fi, raising some truly profound issues.
This is the ultimate surveillance versus security scenario, with a state so invasive it makes that of Nineteen Eighty-Four seem positively liberal. The rebels of Libria must dream of living in a George Orwell novel. Oh to be even capable of committing thought crimes, such luxury! Libria’s citizens are incapable of human emotion, so all forms of art are contraband and must be destroyed. The result of this most extreme form of surveillance is the most extreme form of security – a guaranteed absence of conflict, war and pain. What the film makes abundantly clear, through the process of Christian Bale’s realisation, is that this is too great a sacrifice for mankind to make.
Interestingly, Equilibrium seeks to equate political freedom with philosophical freedom; without one, we cannot have the other. It argues that when we hand over our personal liberty, we lose what it is that makes us human. If free will is the ability to act according to our own desires, then without these desires we have no free will. It is free will which starts wars and causes suffering, but also brings us love and happiness. Without it we’re robots, existing purely for the sake of existing. “It’s circular,” argues Emily Watson’s character, “you exist to continue your existence. What’s the point?”
Despite its painfully post-Matrix sensibilities and occasionally stupid moments, Equilibrium paints a compelling dystopian vision with a powerful argument about what it means to be alive. Although the film offers this picture of the ultimate sacrifice, human emotion itself, it challenges us to think about when liberty can legitimately be handed over in exchange for security and where we ought to draw that line. To quote the philosophical goldmine that is the James Bond franchise, The World Is Not Enough‘s villain declares: “There’s no point in living if you can’t feel alive.”