Equilibrium and The Realism of Foolishness

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I recently got to see Equilibrium (2002), a movie best described as “a dystopian art film with gun-fu.” We follow the story of John Preston (Christian Bale), an enforcer in a future of emotion-suppressing drugs and underground smugglers of art. The film got limited marketing in the United States, and more’s the pity – it’s a beautifully done film made for only $20 million.

On the surface, the premise seems silly – to prevent war, people must take emotion-deadening drugs and avoid sensory experiences like art. Specialized enforcers known as Grammaton Clerics use gun-fu and their calculating minds to hunt down “sense offenders.” It’s a concept you’d expect on a second-tier episode of The Orville or a Star Trek series, if well done.

As I analyzed this well-done film, something haunted me. I kept analyzing the seemingly half-baked premise of “we must stop emotion and be rational. That’s when I realized – I’d seen people express similar views in real life.

Those online enough (such as myself) are painfully aware of people who declare how rational they are. Such self-congratulating would-be rationalists are quick to say how other people are irrational and emotional. These people – almost inevitably white men – obviously think they should be in charge of “the other.”

I have no problem imagining these pseudo-rationalists trying to medicate their emotions to unleash their supposed great mental powers. It takes me little effort to imagine some guru or internet personality selling them drugs or supplements to do so. The internet has produced enough would-be gurus claiming to lead people to a paradise of rational thought (again, almost always white men).

Equilibrium seems to be built on a simplistic premise, but many people base their own lives on shallow ideas. That is what haunted me about Equilibrium – the idea people would hate their own emotions and claim to build a rational world is too real.

I take this as a reminder to be careful when judging fictional settings. They may seem too simple – but forget that some people hold very simplistic views. They may seem overly complex, but life can be complicated. The question is neither simplicity nor complexity, sophistication or crudity – but do they help us think and feel.

In the case of Equilibrium, beyond the considerable artistry, it shows a “rationalist” society as a horrible place. The washed-out dark gray of the existence, the emotionally-numbed sadism, were awful. In short, Equilibrium says of its seemingly simplistic world, “yes, this would be awful, yes it would fall apart.”

Then I cast my gaze on the internet and see men declaring their rationalism, their freedom of emotion. I see them dead inside or burning in a rage they call “critical thinking,” insulting people on the internet. They would try to build a world like Equilibrium while saying it was something else.

Let us be careful judging fiction. We may find it is judging us and judging others more than we realized.

Steven Savage