Read an alternative review by Anthony Nield (Region 2 DVD)
Christian Bale proves once again that he has the stuff to be a major star in the science fiction thriller Equilibrium. It's just a shame that the film lets him down. Equilibrium is a gloomy, humourless potpourri of borrowed ideas, dull images and second hand action scenes. The story blends George Orwell, Philip K Dick and Ray Bradbury, taking other bits from Demolition Man, Judge Dredd, The Running Man, Universal Soldier, The Matrix and probably every other sci-fi movie since Blade Runner.
A few decades into the future, following a nuclear war, society has rebuilt itself under the rule of a charismatic despot called The Father (Sean Pertwee), who has decreed that emotion is the root of all mankind's troubles and has banned it - a philosophy pioneered by the Vulcans in Star Trek. Citizens take a drug to suppress their feelings, anything that can stimulate emotion has been outlawed, from the Mona Lisa to chintz wallpaper, and the penalty for indulging emotions - "sense crime" - is incineration. The law is enforced by the Clerics, a quasi-religious police force who dress, fight and shoot guns like Morpheus's boys in The Matrix.
Bale plays John Preston, a particularly cold-hearted Cleric who stood by while his wife went to the furnaces and, as the film opens, executes his partner (Sean Bean) for reading poetry. However, the killing triggers a change in him and he feels a connection with a woman he arrests for a sense offence (Emily Watson). Soon he's stopped taking his medicine, started getting in touch with his feelings and is sparing victims and rescuing puppies. Preston's found his humanity but have the changes escaped his boss (Angus MacFadyen), his ambitious new partner (Taye Diggs) or his somber son (Matthew Harbour) who looks and acts like Damien from The Omen?
On the positive side, Christian Bale and Emily Watson are far better than the film deserves and the action scenes are pretty well choreographed. Director Kurt Wimmer clearly admires John Woo, as well as Luc Besson and the Wachowski brothers, but then so does every other action director working today. It's not that there's anything wrong with Hong Kong-style action but Hollywood's become too reliant on it to jazz up mediocre thrillers like this one.
Equilibrium's biggest drawback is its near-complete lack of humour, emphasised by the grey warehouse sets and a rumbling score that copies Mission: Impossible 2 a little too closely. If you're going to take your story this seriously, the story had better be a good one, otherwise you end up with a film that seems as pompous and silly as Equilibrium does.
For a start, the society the film presents is ridiculous. The decor of this world is mid-20th century fascist, all square grey buildings, swastika-style flags and long black coats and the values of its leaders are those of Hitler and Stalin. But you can't have fascism without emotion as fascism is rooted in political fervor, usually in bigotry. The fanaticism of the Clerics is also illogical - they're depicted as Gestapo-like secret police who do their job with relish. They machine-gun people in cold blood and burn prisoners alive, actions which require a hatred they aren't supposed to possess and besides, such cruelty would stir up fear and anger in the population, surely the last thing they would want. If you're against emotion, you can't keep your people in line by terror. The whole premise is silly anyway as you can't just switch off human emotion. Without it, you'd end up with a world filled with psychologically damaged basket cases.
The plot is hackwork. The Clerics are portrayed as omnipotent or incompetent depending on the needs of the story and, likewise, Preston can either beat up a roomful of goons without breaking a sweat or be evenly matched by one fat bloke. The deathly serious script stoops to such contemptible tactics as using the fate of a cute little puppy dog to win sympathy and throwing in a cheap, groan-inducing twist involving Preston's devil child. Finally it sells out its entire downbeat tone to provide a ridiculous conclusion. If "sense crime" meant making no sense, Equilibrium would certainly be incinerated.