Equilibrium has the status of a brilliant cult film, a status I don’t understand because the movie’s balls-in-deep-fryer levels of stupid. The villain’s plot hinges on the main character, super-cop John Preston, not taking his emotion-suppressing drug in an emotionless dystopia one day, a plan based on an entirely private accident (Preston knocking over his Emote-B-Gone in the bathroom). Emotion doesn’t factor into the war between the dystopia and The Resistance beyond it just being the flag worn by one particular side. And, most damning of all, Equilibrium promises a world without emotions and does not deliver. Give me any scene in this movie, and I can point out pride, suspicion, pain, ambition, or several other emotions felt by characters who are supposed to be taking medicine to quell all feeling (There’s only one scene where this is not the case: bad guy says to Preston “do the thing” and Preston says “ok”). This constant plotsore got to the point where I suspected the big twist of this movie to be that nobody was taking the state-mandated drugs.
So why do people like this movie? I have two suspicions. One, it’s fucking awesome. Gun-kata, a martial art based on firing guns and dodging bullets, forms the basis of several amazing actions scenes in this movie. But people keep telling me this is a “thinking man’s movie,” unless they mean a man thinking “This iz teh coolest!” So what else? Maybe the premise appeals to people. Imaginations fire off when they hear ideas like “Imagine a world without x” or “What if everyone was y?” So maybe people like the premise and connect with it well enough that they forget that the idea doesn’t work in this movie. What would a world without emotion actually look like? In other words, how would I write Equilibrium and make it good?
Let’s take the starting point of the film: After WWIII, humanity seeks to prevent future suffering by destroying anger, fear, and other root causes of war (forgetting, of course, that lack of resources and potential gains of living space/superior political positions also cause wars, and that a populace weary of war and protective of their youth helps prevent them). Humanity’s now emotionless. What do they do with their time? Can’t pursue culture, no motivation to earn love or raise a family. Why even eat to feel satisfied? What does the continuation of the human race feel like to them? It feels like nothing, so there’s no motivation to get out of bed. Let’s get even more basic. You’re a dictator, and you tell your people, “Take this drug that suppresses your emotions.” They ask “Why?” you say “I’ll kill you if you don’t,” and they say “That’s bad! I better take the pill!” On Day 2, what will you say to make them take the pill again? What do they care if they get killed? They won’t even judge it as bad. And if you wait until they feel again to force the pill on them, that just opens a huge window for more of them to say “No” each day.
People tend to forget that logic, aside from numerical equations, exists to serve emotions. You do logical things, like eat healthy and avoid bad neighborhoods, because you want to maximize positive feelings and minimize negative ones. People in depression can be emotionless, and look at how productive they are.
But this is our premise and our imagination; let’s change it so that the drugs suppress ‘bad’ emotions, like anger or hate, the stuff ‘causing’ the wars in the first place. How do you keep an obedient population? At least emotionless people couldn’t be arsed to sodomize kittens or graffiti your Apple-Trademarked cityscapes. Even if those people feel a void instead of a negative emotion, how do you think they’ll feel about the void?
Maybe this whole business is a temporary fix. Perhaps the elite are the only ones allowed to have emotions until humanity enters a post-scarcity era or something. There’s still the risk of Dictator A getting cross with General B and starting a war, but if these elite all agreed to Emote-B-Gone the world to prevent wars, maybe they’re extra-keen to remember everyone’s birthdays. Art and culture is for the top dogs only, and the underclass can’t even get jealous. One thing I liked about Equilibrium was the implication that the opposite of emotion isn’t logic, but faith and conformity. Preston doesn’t have kids because he likes them; he has kids because society demands it. Emotions don’t make us human, they make us individuals. This still doesn’t solve the problem that people without emotions don’t care about leaders enough to follow or even fear them, but that leash will keep us from the dog park of imagination if we don’t loosen it a bit. Emotionlessness isn’t the entirety of the drug, but the symptom of a medicine that makes you totally susceptible to suggestion.
How do these elite members get the underclass to take the drug? A constant need to reapply the drug causes the problems in Equilibrium in the first place. So let’s make Emote-B-Gone airborne, perhaps by using the machine from Batman Begins. With every toxin-laced breath, the population stays docile and susceptible to command. Some people resist by carrying oxygen tanks and masks wherever they go, just like there’s a Resistance in the film. The villains are out in a space station, far from the poisonous atmosphere, giving orders via Skype and broadcasting propaganda so their workforce remembers to continue building everything-proof shields and puppy dispensers and other utopian inventions (funny enough, Equilibrium broadcasts propaganda everywhere too, but only because it assumes it’s audience is too stupid to remember that this society is bad unless they tell us every other scene).
To see what happens next, let’s consider the message the film wanted to convey: “Emotion trumps lack of emotion.” Or, in other words, “It’s wrong to take people’s emotions away.” Morality is based on feeling. One of the elites (we’ll call her Mary) decides that their class’s actions are wrong, having men and women (the scarce amount of women that exist in Equilibrium anyways) live entire lives in servitude without joy or euphoria, their breathing “just a clock…ticking.” So she needs to kill the elite, and maybe the best way to do this is to get super-samurai-gun-cops The Clerics to kill the leaders. She utilizes a secure, private channel to contact the Clerics, the order John Preston belongs to, and brings them up to the space station. The leaders give the Clerics air tanks (or sci-fi nostril implants that do the same thing, if you don’t want oxygen tanks to get in the way of action set pieces) filled with Emote-B-Gone before they’re allowed onboard. Mary gives the rest of the elite a bullshit excuse for bringing the Clerics to the space station, an excuse that the leaders don’t believe. So, in the middle of a private Cleric/Mary meeting, just as Mary takes the nosegear off of Preston, the dictator of this world sends in a broadcast ordering the Clerics to kill Mary. Mary grabs Preston and dives just in time into a trapdoor that leads to a bulletproof bunker. Now safe, she explains to Preston that that new sensation in him is emotion, and that’s why he needs to eradicate the rest of the elite and, by extension, his fellow Clerics. The movie becomes a string of action sequences in pursuit of this goal. At first, it appears Mary’s fatal flaw was her decision to emotionify Preston: with pesky feelings like respect for life and physical pain in the way, Preston’s less effective as a fighter. But the feelings of immense pressure and fear boost Preston’s creativity to the point where he can outwit his fellow Clerics and even the decadent elite. This comes with a price: each death weighs on Preston’s conscious more and more, to the point where he goes from sad to depressed to suicidal with grief due to his newfound respect for life and his role as the grim reaper. Preston wins, of course, and finds a way to detoxify the atmosphere of Earth. But he’s so grief-wracked and disgusted with himself (and with Mary, who he now views as a hypocrite and a monster) that the only way Mary can save herself and Preston is to attach his Emote-B-Gone nosegear to him without his consent. She saves his life by becoming the dystopian elite she swore to destroy.
From here, I’m not sure how to go on- this ending raises a lot of heavy questions, perhaps best answered by the audience and not the film. Still a better Equilibrium movie than the one you got, don’t you think?