Christian Bale is watching — and what he sees is an unusually rich on-screen dystopia.
Before The Dark Knight, the actor appeared in a 2002 sci-fi thriller steeped in the genre’s buzziest tropes. You could decide that this film’s over-the-top fight sequences are hopelessly mired in the same early-aughts obsession with trying to rip off The Matrix that had crept in across most of Hollywood by this time.
But doing so would miss the greatest achievement of this wonderfully odd burst of studio-made science fiction. Bale’s contribution to the genre looks like an unabashed Matrix knock-off; everyone who’s heard of the movie knows this, and the critique is arguably true.
But secretly, the film in question is the greatest adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 yet — mixed with the anti-emotion totalitarianism of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and combined with a dash of Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 and its paranoid view of censorship.
Now that Equilibrium is streaming on HBO Max, here’s why it’s much better than a Matrix imitation. Mild spoilers ahead.
The first thing you should know about Equilibrium is that it contains the Sean Bean death to top all Sean Bean deaths. Before the notion took hold that this veteran English actor must die in all his films (and TV series, as Game of Thrones so memorably made clear), Bean quietly dies toward the start of Equilibrium, after giving Bale’s character a warning: not all is right with the system in which they live.
Both Bean and Bale play “Clerics,” people who enforce a strict emotional code in a dystopian future that appears utopian. (Which is generally true of all utopias; they’re all secretly terrible.)
The deal with Equilibrium is that, in this future, you can’t feel too much of anything, or you’ll become a “sense offender.” This is similar to the way taking drugs in Brave New World regulates people’s moods, but the enforcement of this law is closer to Orwell’s 1984, complete with an omnipresent leader named “Father.”
Why Equilibrium is sci-fi excellence
The action of Equilibrium — focused on kinetic, sometimes balletic fight sequences — disguises the movie’s value as a science fiction artifact. For decades, the cautionary science-fiction discourse has been dominated by basically three dystopian books: 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.
These books all follow a familiar setup: in the future, something is unfair, unethical, inhumane, anti-intellectual, or all of the above. However, it’s someone’s job to enforce whatever that rule is (reading is bad, having feelings is a no-no, whatever); then, through the course of this story, this insider is forced to join the other side and become part of the rebellion of free thinkers that they previously fought against.
Some of these plot tropes were so ingrained in the genre that they later trickled down into 1960s science fiction novels like Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s Logan’s Run (1967). Truthfully, the bulk of Dick’s novels are written in this tradition, which is why you see former future cops on the run in so many of his stories — not just Blade Runner, but also Minority Report and Total Recall.
What does this have to do with Equilibrium? Simple: The movie seizes all these tropes and makes its influences extremely blatant in the best way possible.
Equilibrium plays the hits
The moral complexities of Equilibrium are basically nonexistent. Once Cleric Preston (Bale) starts to break the rules and sympathize with sense-offenders, the tension of the movie just exists in waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is why discussions of this movie tend to focus on the excellent action scenes; those provide a good counterpoint to the cautionary-tale aspects of the movie. Just because these themes are old doesn’t mean they’re not heavy. Equilibrium’s trick is that it makes the movie seem old-fashioned, even though it looked edgy in 2002.
But, because the Matrix influence on the aesthetics of Equilibrium hasn’t aged particularly well almost 20 years later, what you’re left with is the rest. That film contains a fairly predictable plot, borrowed from some of the greatest books ever written. And that’s the secret of what makes it cool.
It’s a greatest-hits compendium of sci-fi classics, crammed into an early-aughts action movie. Watching Equilibrium now is more fun than it was in 2002. Back then, it was trying too hard to be a modern film peddling old-school ideas. But now, because both things are old — the package and the thematic contents — the movie is more interesting than it ever was.
Equilibrium was never going to eclipse The Matrix. That wasn’t even its intention. Instead, as a kind of cinematic summary of several 20th-century sci-fi novels, it soars. And in its shameless pilfering from Orwell, Bradbury, and Huxley, it might be more fun than those books were — even if by accident.
Equilibrium is streaming on HBO Max.