August 20, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: Equilibrium

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Equilibrium (2002)
Written and directed by Kurt Wimmer

Among those of us who are fans of science-fiction, there is a unique storytelling element to that genre that we find particularly important, known as "internal logic;" that is, that even though it's okay for the "universe" of that story to be as wildly speculative as the author wants to make it, we still expect the details of that universe to not contradict themselves within the actual story. For example, if it's a world where spaceships have artificial gravity, we don't want there to suddenly be a ship without artificial gravity, just because it heightens the tension of the story at a convenient moment; we sci-fi fans consider such a thing a cheat, a ripoff, the sign of a lazy and unintelligent writer who has absolutely no respect for their audience whatsoever. It's this very subject, for example, that makes Star Trek fans as intense as they are; because over the course of decades and hundreds of writers, the puppetmasters of that fictional universe have woven together an internal logic as tight as our real world, and one subject to just as many unbreakable "laws" about that universe. (In fact, some complain that this is precisely what's wrong with the Star Trek universe, that its unending series of restrictive rules for its fictional universe have started getting in the way of the writers there simply telling a good story...but that's a whole other essay for a whole other time.)

Equilibrium, the movie

And lemme tell ya, bub, if you ever want to see a glaring example of unstable internal logic run amok, things don't get much more guilty than the truly abysmal Equilibrium, the 2002 cinematic disaster by avowed hackmeister Kurt Wimmer (creator of other such crimes against humanity as Ultraviolet, The Recruit and more). It's flabbergasting, in fact, just how many illogical things happen in this movie, a level of storytelling incompetence that will have intelligent fans of the arts thinking that it must be some kind of sly joke. No one can be this bad a filmmaker, right? I mean, and still manage to secure tens of millions of dollars for their project, as well as sign such stars as Christian Bale, Dominic Purcell, Sean Bean, William Fichtner, Taye Diggs, Emily Watson and more? Seriously, when's the ruse going to be over? When are the actors finally going to turn to the screen, wink at us, and say something along the lines of, "Sorry for pulling a fast one on you, folks; we're going to start the real movie now." But then 90 minutes later the end credits start rolling, and you realize -- Good Lord, that actually was the real movie.

Equilibrium, the movie

The trouble, in fact, starts with the very premise of the movie itself, which basically rips off all the cosmetic details of George Orwell's 1984 without bringing over any of its substance; it's a world that's supposedly been decimated by an apocalyptic war, where humans have apparently decided that this endless bloodshed can be directly tied to their ability to experience emotions (or "to get their blood angried up," as Grandpa Simpson might say), and so therefore the only logical response is to create a world where human beings simply no longer experience emotions. Of course! And thus has a new fascistic society called Libria been created within the ruins of our old society; and thus are its citizens required to take a mood-dampening drug each day called Prozium (subtle, Wimmer, subtle); and thus is anything that could possibly provoke any kind of emotion banned from this society (like art, music, bright colors, etc); and thus has this society created a class of police/priests/gun-toting kung-fu experts called "clerics," in charge of killing the seditious and burning all their dirty emotion-inspiring leftovers of pre-Librian society.

Equilibrium, the movie

Now, let's face it; that this is neither the brightest nor stupidest concept for a sci-fi action movie ever created, and in fact under the right hands could've been made into a fairly decent movie (or at least one that would keep a roomful of stoned undergraduates fairly entertained for a couple of hours). Ah, but then, you see, all kinds of screwy things start showing up in this story, which each after the other start making this movie seem more and more ridiculous every moment. For example, for a society trying to eradicate such notions as romantic love, familial duty and sexual desire, it sure seems strange that they would encourage such things as romantic relationships, sexual reproduction and traditional family units, all of which conveniently enough just happen to play a heavy role in the movie's plot. Also, for a society that's banned art, there sure are a lot of damn sculptures around! Not to mention, every time one of these cleric supercops expresses glee over the idea of torturing and killing, every time they express a desire to get ahead in their society's bureaucracy, isn't that in fact expressing an emotion? "We're about to capture the rebels, which makes me very happy." "Well, if you're happy, then that means you're guilty too, and I'm looking forward to killing you." "Well, if you're looking forward to killing him, then you're guilty too! And that makes me sad! No, wait, crap, now I'm guilty! And that makes me afraid! Oh, crap, wait a minute, that now makes me double guilty! Crap crap crap!!!"

Equilibrium, the movie

Now just to remind you, I'm not complaining here about a lack of real-world logic; a complaint about real-world logic would be something along the lines of, "Yeah, right, I'm so sure that Wile E. Coyote could just fall off a hundred-foot cliff, then just dust himself off and walk away! Yeah, right, I'm so sure!" I don't mind Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff and not getting hurt, if that's what the story's creator wants to do; what I take serious issue with, though, is the idea of Wile E. Coyote then actually getting hurt during one of these falls, and there being no explanation behind why he got hurt that one particular time except that it was important for the sake of the story. That is simply sloppy storytelling, and the writer in question should be ashamed of themselves for assuming their audience is that stupid. I mean, what else can you call it but shameful, when you do things like establish a society that shoots its criminals in the street on sight, yet just happens to take one of these people prisoner for weeks and weeks on end instead, for no other reason than that she needs to convey important information about the plot to the movie's hero? Shame on you, Kurt Wimmer; shame on you for assuming your audience is that f--king stupid. We're not that f--king stupid, Wimmer, and it's a legitimate insult for you to treat us like we are.

Equilibrium, the movie

And then finally, as if all this wasn't bad enough, Equilibrium is also guilty of something I personally find maddening in projects like this; and that's assuming that creative projects from the Modernist period of history are for some reason not emotive in any way, ergo "bad art" while something frilly and colorful is "good art." Because that's probably the stupidest damn thing about this entire stupid damn movie in the first place (well, besides the Gun Kata, that is, which is SO FREAKING IDIOTIC that it simply must be witnessed to be believed); that this same society that has worked so hard to ban any public architecture that causes an emotion would then go around building these soaring, majestic Modernist structures, awe-inspiring edifices designed specifically to elicit an emotional response. I find such notions not only the epitome of laziness in a storyteller, but also personally offensive to my own artistic sensibilities; this whole idea that art has to contain flowers and ornamentation and serifs and bright colors in order to be "valid," to inspire creativity, to be considered "art" in the first place. It's ultimately a visual shortcut used by untalented hacks, in that Modernism just happened to be the architectural style most in favor during the rise of fascism in the early 20th century, and so is something we automatically associate in our heads with Nazism and the like; and if there's one thing in the arts that I can stand less than anything else, it's untalented hacks who take visual shortcuts because they're too stupid to do things any other way.

Equilibrium, the movie

In short, Equilibrium is an unmitigated piece of sh-t; a movie which doesn't even live up to the bare-bones minimum expectations of sci-fi thrillers (that is, lots of action, some cool spaceships, and hopefully a couple of boobs), much less even one single element beyond such lowest common denominators. Stay away, stay away, for the love of all that is good, stay away from this trainwreck; and if you know what's good for you, you'd stay away from Kurt Wimmer altogether while you're at it.

Out of 10:
Writing: 0.2
Acting: 6.1
Directing: 2.4
Cinematography: 8.7
Overall: 1.6

Random notes:
--Believe it or not, over 200 people were auditioned for the part eventually played by Sean Bean, despite the fact that he appears in less than ten minutes of the final film. Does this start giving you an idea of exactly what kind of disaster this production was?

--John Preston, the movie's main character, kills 118 people over the course of the film. Man, where are the crazy conservative movie-banning censors when you need them?

--And finally, it should be noted that Wimmer actually invented Gun Kata himself, during an idle weekend in his backyard. Of course he did.

Best viewed: For a few minutes on basic cable, before flipping to something actually decent.

Next on my queue list: The Short Films of David Lynch, one DVD bringing together the most experimental work of one of my most favorite filmmakers of all time (whose oeuvre includes such bizarre masterpieces as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Inland Empire, which by the way just came out on DVD itself last week). The owls are not what they seem!

Read even more about Equilibrium: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:58 PM, August 20, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |