The other night, we watched Christian Bale in Equilibrium, a 2002 movie about a futuristic world where human emotion is banned in an attempt to keep the peace. ***Warning, this post contains substantial spoilers (for Equilibrium, also for Fahrenheit 451 and 1984)***
If this were a film review blog, I’d tell you that this film has some fantastic cinematography. There’s a great scene towards the beginning where Bale shoots a load of guys in the dark, lit only by the machine gun bursts.
But this is a writing blog, so let’s focus on more relevant aspects. The characters are 2 dimensional, the story is a blatant take -ff of Fahrenheit 451 / 1984 etc, and the casting is terrible (for the record, whenever Sean Bean dies early on, the casting is terrible. Sean can’t get enough screen time in my book). Ok, that last one belongs to a film review. The ending has the potential to be a saving grace; it made sense and was reasonably well thought-out. Except the bit about the kids. I’ll explain that later.
Here are my two big lessons from Equilibrium:
1) Get your promo material right. According to IMDB.com, the taglines for this film were:
In a future where freedom is outlawed outlaws will become heroes.
This appears on the cover of the DVD box. It’s ridiculous, because the main character isn’t an outlaw. At least not until the final few moments. Until then, he’s the main guy for the secret police, and about as “inlaw” as you can get. Also, in most people’s heads “outlaw” equates to “hero” anyway, because it makes us think of Robin Hood. Or at least Clint Eastwood. Finally, freedom isn’t really what’s outlawed.
Two men. One battle. No compromise.
Not sure where this appeared, but it reflects the box which shows Bale and Taye Diggs next to each other in a Matrix-style stance. Well lovely. Except that this isn’t a film about two men. It’s a film about one man (Bale) and the various challenges he meets including, but probably not principally, Diggs’ character.
The only thing more powerful than the system, is the man that will overthrow it.
This is where I’m going to get all grammar-police on you and say they meant “the man WHO will overthrow it”. Apart from that, though, way to give away the ending of the film in your tagline. Until about 30 minutes before the end, it’s not even his goal to overthrow the system. After that, it’s not clear (except that this is Hollywood and couldn’t possibly end as unsatisfactorily as Fahrenheit 451 or 1984) until pretty much the very end, that he’s going to succeed.
2) Audiences like to love / hate Characters
The premise of Equilibrium is that emotions have been drugged out of the populace. But the question behind it is, without emotion, are we truly human? Fascinating question, difficult premise for a novel. Because without emotion, it’s very hard to build characters, at least ones we could give two hoots about. Bale’s character is in theory off the drugs and therefore has emotions for much of the novel, but he has to hide them from everyone, so we don’t see them much. And even when we do, either he’s a shoddy actor or the script / director didn’t give him much, because apart from a crying scene and a dodgy bit with a puppy, I didn’t get much to care about throughout. At the very end, he watches the bombs going off in the city where he lives. The city where his kids live. Does he get in a flap about whether his kids are OK? Nope, he’s just pleased about the bombs. There’s also a whole bunch of dodgy love nonsense, with his wife (whom he only knew when he didn’t have emotions) and some woman he’s only met twice. Honestly, no.
Like I say, it’s an interesting premise and I’d like to say it made me think about what it is to be human, but mostly, the film just made me wonder how as writers, we can portray emotion-less characters without losing our readers’ emotions too – and normal characters without retreating to ‘don’t kill the puppy’ clichés. Oh, and wondering why directors so often insist on killing Sean Bean off early…