The year was 2002, just three years after the release and awe-inspiring success of "The Matrix", and apparently Alliance was itching to release a clone with an expressionless-high-cheekboned-leather-trenchcoast-clad-white-male-protagonist with awe-inspiring shooting and martial arts skills featuring avant-garde cinematography and philosophical and/or buddhist themes. Clearly in this case writer and director Kurt Wimmer was the late bird, and the smushed remains of the worm was The Matrix's audience.
The basic premise of the movie is that there is a police officer who lives in a totalitarian regime where feelings are illegal. People are kept on drugs, and anyone caught with art or pets are killed and their possessions are destroyed. The officer ends up realizing how wrong what he is doing is and changing sides to be the big all-important winner of history who saves the world. This idea of someone having a realization and then being the hero of history is really overplayed. I think there are ways to do it well (see Dark City), but this was a movie is not one of those movies. I loved to hate this movie, and I think I have a few good reasons:
1) This movie thinks you are a moron.
Every step of this film attempted to spell itself out so obviously that the only possible excuse could be that the writer thinks you are a moron. In the very beginning, we see the police officer uncover some hidden art, and on top of the pile is the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa. I can't tell you how much I hate the Mona Lisa — actually I can — somewhere in my files in a 12-page paper on how meaningless and hollow the Mona Lisa has become. People are supposed to look at the Mona Lisa and feel curiosity, intrigue, maybe even a bit of sadness or something, but when I look at the Mona Lisa, I just feel angry. When I look at the Mona Lisa I feel like I am looking at a piece of paper someone crumpled up, uncrumpled, wiped their butt with, and then wrote on it, "It stands for art, OK?" It is the laziest, most overused symbol ever, and as a result the meaning of it has been completely destroyed from overuse. The Mona Lisa doesn't show what art means to me; it shows me how lazy the writer is.
Anyway, they uncover the Mona Lisa, and some plebe with a meter confirms it is the real Mona Lisa. Because apparently a fake Mona Lisa can't illicit emotion or be meaningful. A fake Mona Lisa isn't even art. Or what about some art made by a common person? Why does it have to be a Renaissance masterpiece? Because that is what some snob in a conservatory in the 1800s called art? Ugh. Anyway, so surprise, surprise, he burns it. The audience is supposed to be like "OH NOES DON'T BURN THE REAL MONA LISA IT IS ARRRRTTTT!!!!" I don't even care because the beauty of the Mona Lisa has already been burned away by fools like this who think they can cheapen great works with their lazy writing. Later on, they use the example of Beethoven. I like Beethoven because thankfully he hasn't been as shamelessly abused, but still, he is just trying sooo hard to show the audience: ART!
Now maybe you are not the kind of person who cares about art, so you haven't entirely grasped that the government in this story are the bad guys. What we need then is to lower the bar even further and spell it out for you with Nazi imagery. Put symbols that look suspiciously like swastikas on everything, and have references to 1984. Hopefully then, you will at least have a gut instinct that you should question the state that murders its citizens for possessing Beethoven CDs. But there is a little Christian imagery in there as well, since the swastika also look like crosses, Big Brother is called 'The Father', and the police are called 'clerics'. What can we do to really spell it out for even the most pea-brained simpleton? Here's a solution: Show the clerics murdering puppies.
Yes, you read me right. Murdering puppies: For when mass violations of human rights just aren't enough. Bonus points: this is an opportunity for the director to show character development because the main character saves a puppy from being murdered. I consider myself a respectful observer of animal rights, but I also consider myself someone who can put two and two together while watching a movie. The credit this film gave to my intelligence was insulting.
2) This movie is racist, rapey, and exploits biases to make plot development easy.
There is no way I can explain this without spoilers, so if you are anti-spoiler please skip to #3, sorry! Besides, this movie has been out for more than a decade so if you haven't seen it yet, you should make your mind up!
With that warning here it goes: the main character has one partner who was a white man with a British accent, and of course, since British people are more intelligent, more sensitive, and generally more civilized than other human beings (just ask our new writer), he became susceptible to the art he was confiscating and was caught with poetry, so the main character has to kill him. But the crappy hegemonic crap doesn't stop there.
Later in the story the main character find a woman who he knows is somehow associated with his partner. Since the main character is starting to see how emotion might not be such a bad thing, he wants to get more information from her. During an interrogation the woman finds out he is the one who killed his partner and he has to restrain her, holding her down. At this moment, he CARESSES HER HAIR and is overcome with emotion, realising that this woman is his partner's wife. The moment is presented as being genuinely romantic rather than super rapey and really creepy. After this rapey/creepy/violent interrogation moment, she becomes the main love interest in the story, and in a world full of severe looking people clad in grey, she wears a low cut pink top and makeup in jail. So. Weird. Oh yeah, and if that isn't romantic enough for you, he gets to see her be incinerated by the evil government. Hawt.
Lastly, after the British guy dies the main character gets a new partner who is black, and of course, his race is supposed to be the big clue that he betrays his new partner to climb the corporate ladder and is actually evil. Yep, it's just business when the white main character guy murders his old partner for defaulting but when the new guy who is black does it suddenly he is the bad guy. Wow.
3) Doesn't anyone know how to run a totalitarian regime?
Maybe it's because I have a soft spot for supervillains, or because I have been reading too much Foucault, but I'm pretty sure I could run a way more stable totalitarian regime than this 'father' guy. Firstly, if you want people to not have emotion, you cannot have them living in family units and knowing who their offspring are. A quick glimpse at Plato's Republic or Huxley's Brave New World could have given the writer that, and these are staples of dystopian literature. One might say the reason the writer chose to have children living with their parents is because they police their parents, which is true, but the society had the technology to enable video surveillance à la 1984, a piece the writer was obviously familiar with given how much he referred to it. In fact, we know they did because there were screens everywhere from which emanated images of the father taking about the evil of emotion, and how the world was better off without emotion, which leads me to another problem.
Our current society has way better strategies for suppressing emotion than this fictional one. Firstly, in Equilibrium, people constantly talk about the absence of emotion. In our world, talking about emotion, especially depression, is very taboo. If you want something to become completely absent, you don't constantly acknowledge its absence, you ignore it to the point where even talking about it is unacceptable.
Another problem with the suppression of emotion in Equilibrium is that it is both medicalized and punished. People are given pills to suppress their emotions but also they are murdered if they fail to control their emotions. In this model, it isn't clear whether one has agency and responsibility for their emotions or not. If they were to only medicalize emotion, it would be shown as unnatural, something that must be controlled with technology, and then when people failed to keep their emotions managed, they would be seen as only victims of their dangerous problem. They would be seen as self-destructive, not as subversive. People who fell into the temptation of emotion would be seen as no longer rational, like a drug addict, and in need of help rather than silencing. The kind of violent response the clerics show to people who default shows them as a threat, but treating people as though they are victims who have left reason behind shows them to be something to be pitied rather than feared or worse: recognized. If having emotions were stigmatized as something pitiable, no one would want to be a victim of them. Under the current set of norms, they are seen as rebels rather than patients. One more thing that made the social perception of emotion even less believable was the way people used words such as friend, hope, excitement, or faith, words that didn't make sense in a world without emotion. The characters even knowingly discuss how they could not possibly understand the meaning of these words, which only made it worse.
Lastly, I think it was really poor planning not to have clerics on a frequent retirement (and perhaps even disposal) schedule. The clerics were the most frequently exposed to artwork and needed to understand how people with emotion (people who defaulted) behaved. Therefore, they were at the greatest risk of default. If, like I mentioned earlier, the society worked on a model that compared emotion to mental health and medicalized emotion, clerics would frequently self-report when they were worried about defaulting and then could get treatment (such as an increased dose of emotion-suppressing drug and a sabbatical) Overall, I felt the poor planning of this regime made it very hard to believe.
While I love hating this movie, I think there is an important message we can walk away with: know thy audience. If you want to create a heady sci-fi action flick, go for the gold and write your vision. But, if you want to write something that will sell for Joe Doritodust, who needs murdered puppies to explain who the bad guy is, write Bang Bang You're Dead 5: Get Dedder! But for heaven's sake, no matter what you do, don't try to do both! You'll just end up irritating everyone!