In MONTAG's Today's Dystopia series, we take a look at fictional futures and compare them to the world of today. How near or far are we from the futures we are afraid of?
The city of Libra presented in 2002's Equilibrium ticks off all the boxes for a fictional dystopia:
Totalitarian government with a patriarchal figurehead whose face appears on giant screens in every public place spewing propaganda? Check
Population reduced to mindless drones because of mass-produced and mandatorily dosed emotion-stifling drugs? Check
Art, literature, and anything that evokes sensual pleasure made illegal and burned by squads of faceless militarized police with flamethrowers? Check
If the post-World-War-III architecture looks familiar, it's because much of the film was shot in Berlin, and the film also aesthetically evokes fascism quite heavy-handedly with the government's flags and uniforms.
A more stereotypical dystopia has yet to be committed to film, and the central point of contention (that art and human emotion can and should depose authoritarian regimes) is one that has been visited in many, many other works of science fiction, including but not limited to 1984, Farenheit 451, and Brave New World. Rotten Tomatoes' Critics Consensus states the obvious: "Equilibrium is a reheated mishmash of other sci-fi movies."
And yet, Equilibrium is still enjoyable in its obviousness. Released shortly after The Matrix, its highly stylized fight scenes, including the protagonist storming the capitol as a one-man coup, are still fun to watch, if you don't cringe at glorified gun violence.
The symbols of art and humanity that Christian Bale's hard-boiled cop grows attached to as he stops taking the drug and joins the resistance are actually quite beautiful in their simplicity: a rainbow, a puppy, a children's book, a woman's red hair ribbon. At one point a tiny, ornate bottle of amber perfume forms a pleasantly subtle visual opposition to the yellow injectable vials of Prozium II, the desensitizing drug.
The dichotomy between the oppressive government's faceless, grey uniformed and leather-clad militarized police, and the rebel art appreciators (called "Sense Offenders") who all have colorful clothing, long hair, and soulful eyes, could lull us into a false sense of security: of course our world is nothing like this! But there are some facets of the future technology and society that may be closer to ours than we think.
Today we'll rate the art, the tech, and the government of this dystopia on a scale of 1 to 5 guns, because Equilibrium is, at its core, an action movie whose most memorable quality is the "gun kata," a made up martial art that basically looks like tai chi, but with guns. Let's begin!
The Art: 5 out of 5 guns
The film opens with a police raid on a group of people sitting around in a decrepit salon full of oil paintings quietly flipping through books, listening to records, and drinking wine. After Christian Bale's enforcement squad guns all of them down, they uncover a cache of art underneath the floorboards and the first piece to get torched in the film is none other than the Mona Lisa.
Shortly after, Bale's partner (played by Sean Bean), is the first to stop taking his Prozium II, and is caught with a smuggled book of Yeats poems. In a later scene, when Bale has also stopped taking the drug and finds another stash of illegal art, he plays a record of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, and is moved to tears.
All of these are instantly recognizable as Art with a capital A. But what's cool about the film's definition of dangerous art is that it's not only capital-A Art, famous works that would be featured in textbooks or institutions, that is banned and destroyed. Disco balls, decorative glass jars, kinetic sculpture, kitsch, novelty furniture, street signs, appliances, vintage pinup posters, children’s books, and snow globes are also included. Anything that stirs feelings or has any emotional resonance is considered dangerous, and that’s actually a pretty neat definition of art.
Somehow, despite the constant government surveillance and ubiquity of machine-gun-toting police, it is possible to smuggle large quantities of contraband, and an entire underground city of rebels is thriving. There is a seemingly endless supply of Sense Offenders for the police force to annihilate in dramatic raids.
The trope of ineffective totalitarianism (also known as Fascist, But Inefficient) is ludicrous enough that the existence of the rebels and the entire art smuggling situation deserve 0 out of 5 guns for plausibility.
But the art itself is real, and the film gets a 5 out of 5 guns for embracing the art in the aesthetics of the everyday.
The Tech: 2 out of 5 guns
Fan site The Compleat [sic] Sean Bean quotes writer and director Kurt Wimmer on the tech in the film:
"I wanted to create more of an alternate reality than get caught up in the gadgetry of science fiction... In fact, there’s no technology in EQUILIBRIUM that doesn’t already exist. It’s more like a parallel universe, the perfect setting for a parable.”
It is true that the technology of the film isn't too different from today's, but the noticeable things that have and have not changed are simply not believable enough to get a high score.
The most noticeable futuristic technology is the drug delivery system. Every citizen of Libra is required to carry a small gun around with them that takes cartridges of liquid Prozium II and injects it into their neck.
First of all, relying on each citizen to voluntarily shoot up several times a day doesn't seem like the most effective form of control. Why not put the drug in their drinking water, or distribute it through the air somehow?
Second, there is a noticeable lack of gaping neck wounds. Unless there was some kind of skin grafting or cauterizing technology included in the gun, injecting the same spot several times a day would at best leave a mark, and at worst look like everyone had a bad case of vampire bites.
While there is no shortage of massive screens for the Huge Holographic Head of the government's overlord to preach from, and tablet computers or foldable touch screen interfaces are also used several times in the film, digital record keeping is simply unheard of.
In several scenes, Bale calls up audio or video recordings of things that have just transpired, so there should be some kind of digitized and centralized government surveillance archive, which makes sense for a future dystopia. But when he goes to the archives to see if an illegal piece of art has been placed in storage or destroyed, the record keeper is using a massive book on a pedestal.
Other pieces of weirdly anachronistic tech include the zeppelins present in every establishing shot of the city, and the strange two-faced analog watch that at least two of the law enforcement agents wear which tells them when to take their next Prozium II dose:
While it is kind of stylish (and you can buy it online for $115), it's also kind of useless.
Because the tech in the film isn't much of a stretch from today's it gets 2 guns, but misses a higher score because the tech that it does have doesn't make a lot of sense.
The Government: 1.5 out of 5 guns
The name of the Tetragrammaton Council is never explained, and we meet only one Council member during the film: Vice-Counsel DuPont. A figurehead known only as "Father" is the one whose face is broadcast all over the city, and (spoiler alert) it turns out that this Father figure is nothing but a projection, and DuPont is the one behind it all.
Maybe there's no Council at all, but one has to wonder why a completely drugged and subdued population would necessitate any attempted performance of democracy. Regardless of this small plot hole (and the larger note of incompetence covered in the analysis of art), there are two smart things about the presentation of the government in this dystopia.
First, the name DuPont can't be a coincidence. DuPont, the over 200-year-old chemical manufacturing conglomerate, is one of the top ten largest chemical companies in the world based on market capitalization and revenue. Artificial materials are the building blocks of dystopia, so who better than the inventors of Styrofoam, Lucite, Teflon, Neoprene, and Kevlar, to assist in world domination.
"Better Things For Better Living... Through Chemistry," the DuPont motto from 1935 - 1982, is already a perfect dystopian slogan:
In 2001, DuPont sold a lot of their pharmaceutical business to global pharma company Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS). Peter Dolan, the former chief executive of BMS, commented at the time of the deal that one of the products currently in research and development was "a novel agent for treating depression and anxiety." This was also the same year that the manufacturers of Prozac lost its patent.
In the alternate universe of the film, maybe Prozium II is a super-Prozac created by DuPont early in the 21st century, and they effectively overtake governmental control after striking a deal with the government to mandate distribution of the drug after World War III. Stranger things have happened in science fiction than the collusion of governments and pharmaceutical companies.
The second realistic part of the totalitarian government is its computer-generated figurehead. Much has been written about emerging technologies that allow for the digital manipulation of a politician's face. The 2016 paper "Face2Face: Real-time Face Capture and Reenactment of RGB Videos", a collaboration between scholars from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Max Planck Institute for Informatics, and Stanford University, demonstrates how advanced the technology has already become. In this short video they demonstrate manipulating the faces of George W. Bush, Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump:
When the protagonist has managed to assassinate everyone in the government and clear the path for the revolution to begin, the first thing he does to begin the liberation of the city is to enter a control room where lackeys sit at computer terminals creating the propaganda projections all over the city. By shooting the computer monitors, another great trope, and because the only way for anyone to solve any problem in this film is with a gun, he shuts down the propaganda machine and begins to free the people from their stupor.
The fact that the technology to make this kind of holographic figurehead is actually possible today gets the government in Equilibrium one star. The second star comes from the DuPont connection, but only half, because it's very unclear whether Wimmer has intended for this to be as deep as we think it could be.
Overall: 2.8 out of 5 stars
It would have been easy for Equilibrium to pose the question of whether it's actually worth the elimination of all war to deny everyone of love, art, and emotion. This grey area is never explored. Government = Bad, Art = Good.
And admittedly, the average for this film is skewed very high because of the art rating.
But let's consider for a moment the original description of the film, as a "mishmash of other sci-fi movies." Doesn't it seem likely that our future wouldn't resemble a single work, but an amalgamation of fictional dystopias?
We are rightfully afraid of fascism, and of losing our bodily autonomy to chemical and psychological warfare. We want to be on the side of art and love. As the sole female in the film says, "Without love, breath is just a clock ticking."
If the future is at all predictable, let's hope that the citizens of tomorrow's dystopia fight for love, for rainbows, for puppies and for dangerous kitsch. In fact, why not start that fight today?