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Bale, the Conquering Hero: Christian Bale takes charge in 'Equilibrium.'

Exterminate!

'Equilibrium' delivers a shocking--shocking, we say--warning of future events

By Richard von Busack

FROM THE HIGH-FLOWN TITLE to the credits to the Devo costumes to the computer graphics that look like every German nihilist perfume commercial you've ever seen, Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium is the funniest sci-fi manqué in years. It could only exist in a world where Woody Allen's Sleeper had been forgotten. Most would assume that the "evil space emperor vs. the rebels" was the ground-floor level of science fiction. But what's daffier than a tale of future society in which all emotion is banned?

It takes a plagiarist's heart to ransack 1984; it takes gall to then "salute" Orwell's work (by naming Emily Watson's character "O'Brian")--and then it takes a lack of common sense to understand how much arm-twisting audiences will endure before they start laughing: say, for instance, the scene in which the black-clad fascists shoot an offscreen kennel full of doggies, because it's highly illogical to keep these animals.

In the future society of "Libria," everyone shoots up super-Prozac into their necks on penalty of transportation to "The Hall of Destruction." The population is stashed in gloomy concrete bunkers, like the dorms in a cow college. John Preston (Christian Bale) is a "clerick of the Tetragrammaton": a soldier of the Leader, part of an office that burns works of art and music--oh, like the "firemen" in Fahrenheit 451, let us say. After burning the original Mona Lisa (and not a moment too soon!), Preston's assistant, Partridge (Sean Bean), goes soft, the officer's dormant emotions roused by La Giaconda's smile, his mind stirred by a found volume of Yeats' poetry.

We dystopia fans know that Preston's next. Years before, Preston's wife was killed for a "sense crime" of feeling. And we clock the look of wonder on Preston's face when he hears his first forbidden record during a raid. Naturally, it's Beethoven's Ninth. The one record left on Earth wouldn't turn out to be "Turkey in the Straw." It's a grave disappointment, however, when it turns out that the Leader isn't actually an evil computer bleating, "Exterminate!" through a loudspeaker--preferably a computer with big reels of magnetic tape spinning on it, yet another machine gotten too big for its britches. But at least the acting's no letdown. A minute of Watson, as a captured rebel girl, is more chemical than all of Femme Fatale. And Bale surely needs to play superheroes. He gets his start here, with choppily computer-animated gun and kung-fu battles that ought to give PlayStation fans moist laps. Bale possesses the muscles, the chin and the Captain Marvel eyebrows. Why would any producer pay for Tom Cruise when he could have Christian Bale?

Equilibrium will keep you grinning like Mr. Sardonicus. It's the kind of film that the characters in The Big Lebowski would accept as a serious warning sign of things to come. Perhaps the repeated quote from Yeats--"Tread softly because you tread on my dreams"--is a plea to critics. If so, to quote Yeats: after seeing Equilibrium, "Why should not old men be mad?" Or young ones who know their science fiction, for that matter.


Equilibrium (R), directed and written by Kurt Wimmer, photographed by Dion Beebe and starring Christian Bale and Emily Watson, opens at the Century Cine 16 in Mountain View.


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From the December 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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