Science-fiction is assembled from what-ifs. What if a filmmaking Frankenstein twisted the brainy themes and story pieces from Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and 1984 (1984) into an epic sci-fi fantasy as impossibly armed and dystopian as The Matrix (1999)? If orgiastic barrages of automatic gunfire periodically drowned out the messages, it would probably be like Equilibrium.

Welcome to yet another post-apocalyptic sci-fi dystopia. The society of Libria has risen from the ashes of yet another World War III (an oft-projected sci-fi nightmare since the end of World War II). Its founder, Father, must have questioned why and how man can fall into the inhumane sickness of war and murder. His answer? Feelings. The cure? Mandatory “intervals,” morning and evening doses of Prozium, a drug that neutralizes emotion — and the strict prohibition of all art and artifacts of the past.

The reclusive Father is as pictorially ubiquitous as any totalitarian dictator: He appears on TV screens in every public space and private home. Inner party clericks administered by the Master Clerick (Angus MacFayden, Cradle Will Rock) preserve the peace by destroying contraband and the “sense-criminals” who possess it. The offenders face death straightaway by firing squad or, after interrogation, in incineration chambers.

Our hero, John Preston (Christian Bale, Reign of Fire), is a clerick. Well, not just a clerick, but a superclerick. Preston can almost supernaturally sense the sense-criminals and their illicit possessions. He’s also a master of the clericks’ form of martial arts, especially the most spectacularly lethal, the Gun Kata.

We meet Preston on the job. After rooting an oil painting from under a floor for prompt burning by flamethrower, he delivers a flying kick on a door and lands like a superhero in a dark chamber illuminated only by the tracer bullets of resistance fighters. That is, until his retractable automatic pistols slide into his hands and he executes the unseen enemy with the Gun Kata, a system of kung fu-based movements mathematically formulated for maximum kill and minimum exposure to fire. Only his stroboscopic gun blasts light his dance of death. His overheated muzzles glow like hot pokers betraying a trace of victorious satisfaction on his face. Otherwise his emotionless, Prozium-maintained mask is intact.

Then he accidentally misses his morning interval (to his Hitler Youth-like son’s chagrin) and ends up addicted to the feeling of feeling. Preston steps onto the road to Prozium-less perdition. On the way, he emotionally discovers an ironic femme fatale, Mary O’Brian (Emily Watson, Red Dragon, Punch-Drunk Love), Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” in her hidden room of forbidden, prewar wonders — and even a puppy dog.

Writer-director Kurt Wimmer (Sphere) doesn’t bother to hide the cinematic sources of his story. He virtually highlights them. Most of Equilibrium’s settings, characters and plots are Wimmer’s cartoons of and allusions to 1984. But Wimmer seamlessly stitches these to his borrowings from Fahrenheit 451, blurring the plot lines between the two films.

O’Brian may be the namesake of 1984’s nemesis. But she’s an ironically vampy, more violent version of Fahrenheit 451’s quietly rebellious schoolteacher. Then there’s Preston, a believer in and enforcer of the religion of terrible totalitarianism. He loses his faith like 1984’s Winston Smith and Fahrenheit 451’s “fireman,” Montag, who swore to eradicate his society’s more specific contraband, books, with his flamethrower.

Some things, though, seem to be all Wimmer’s. Libria and Prozium are phonetically close to the popular and trademarked antidepressants Librium and Prozac. Just as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 plotted the logical extremes of Stalinist communism and puritanical book-burning respectively, Equilibrium does the same with psychiatrically prescribed, mood-leveling pharmaceuticals. That is, if you bother to dig this theme out from under more tinkling brass cartridges than Neo and company spent in The Matrix.

Speaking of logical extremes, this sci-fi shoot-’em-up takes director John Woo’s Hong Kong bullet ballets to the max. The scales tip toward gripping gun porn (if you have a fetish for this kind of thing) and away from the grim, social satire from which it borrows. Equilibrium ends up losing the balance between the two and slips into orgiastically violent entertainment.

James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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