Near the beginning of “Equilibrium,” a flaccid sci-fi opus slavishly modeled on “Fahrenheit 451,” one of a pair of so-called Grammatron Clerics–a bunch of martial-arts monks dedicated to stamping out any expression of human emotion or individuality in the nation of Libria, whose perpetually-drugged citizens live lives of dazed obedience–tells his partner that he always expects the worst. A viewer should be grateful to him, since he informs the audience quite precisely of the attitude with which they should approach this mediocre movie.
If there were any justice in the screenwriting fraternity, Kurt Wimmer would have given at least some listing in the credits to Ray Bradbury, but such is not the case (even in the press notes, though “Fahrenheit” is briefly mentioned in the company of “1984,” “Brave New World” and “Minority Report,” the story is termed Wimmer’s “original vision”). The debt’s brutally obvious, though: the only switch is that here the futuristic society has outlawed anything that appeals to the senses of the populace rather than merely books. To enforce its big-brotherish directives (actually delivered by an omnipresent figure called–imaginatively enough–Father), the government has established the corps of clerics, who might be described as a modern version of the Shao Lin monks so familiar from “Kung Fu.” The most notable–and capable–of them is John Preston (Christian Bale), the Montag figure, who comes to doubt the social structures he’s sworn to uphold after he finds his own partner giving himself over to such sensual delights as the printed page and he himself has been corrupted by emotionalism when he skips his meds, too. (The sappy and derivative character of the piece is further demonstrated by the fact that among the things he finds appealing are Beethoven’s Ninth–shades of “A Clockwork Orange” and Ludwig Van–and, of all things, a puppy dog.) Preston’s defection naturally brings him in touch with the inevitable resistance movement and into conflict with the effete governing powers; but he proves capable of overcoming apparently insurmountable obstacles singlehandedly to free humanity from the yoke of addiction and obedience.
To be perfectly honest, “Fahrenheit 451” was itself based on a pretty silly idea, but it was one of those great silly ideas that’s almost impossible not to enjoy–especially when one was reading it, almost conspiratorially, in book form. (When Truffaut filmed the story, he made the mistake of disclosing the hollowness of the conceit all too clearly by showing “The Martian Chronicles” as one of the books being burnt–a gag that got the intended laugh, but also made one realize, embarrassedly, that he was being had.) Perhaps Wimmer believed that by multiplying the sorts of pleasurable activities forbidden by the regime to include all aural and visual stimuli as well as intellectual ones, he might render the material more cinematic. That wasn’t a bad goal, since Truffaut’s version of the original was stern and antiseptic–the sort of picture that, though it was made in color, you remember being black-and-white. But very little is done with the additions–“Equilibrium” is as flat and antiseptic as “Fahrenheit 451” was–and it exhibits as much (or, rather, as little) underlying passion. In adding the absurd kung-fu elements, moreover, Wimmer has miscalculated badly; he’s merely proven that Montag and “The Matrix” don’t mix.
“Equilibrium” also makes one wonder about Christian Bale. Why so talented a young actor–he was superb in “American Psycho”–has chosen to fritter away his time on “Reign of Fire” and now this is (apart from a paycheck) frankly incomprehensible. He’s in buff condition, to be sure, and it must be childishly enjoyable to engage in all the kicking, punching and shooting, but striding stone-faced through such a plot must drain one’s self-respect fairly quickly. The remainder of the cast is reduced to playing either snide and snooty (e.g., Angus MacFadyen as Preston’s boss) or smarmily malicious (Taye Diggs, overdoing things as his Machiavellian new partner). The usually radiant Emily Watson, in particular, is wasted as the angelic woman who comes to represent emotional freedom for Preston and whom he tries to save from the government’s clutches.
Visually the picture is better than most of the modestly-budgeted Dimension output–though many scenes are shot in darkness, some of the interiors are given an impressively gleaming elegance, and the occasional urban exteriors have a stolid Stalinesque feel to them. At least it doesn’t look as though the entire movie was shot in a sewage drain, as if often the case with futuristic sci-fi adventures nowadays. (On the other hand, the cars have a plastic appearance to them–they’re not much of an advance on the old TV Batmobile.)
Overall, though, “Equilibrium” falls within the parameters of what the Clerics call “sense offenders” in that it insults both our ears and our eyes. As such the proper response is to repeat the directive they, like old friend Montag, shout when confronted by the illicit items they’re sworn to wipe out: “Burn it!”