Watching the 2002 science fiction movie Equilibrium might give you deja vu, and not just because it’s stylized early ’00s action and black leather wardrobe look a lot like The Matrix.
Even when it was released close to 20 years ago, critics felt Equilibrium was derivative of dystopian staples like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451. “1984 for Dummies,” begins a TV Guide review. And through contemporary eyes, Equilibrium looks indistinguishable from franchises like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and, yes, The Matrix.
But this movie has one thing that those old novels and dystopia fictions never do: A new form of kung fu. And that’s why you need to watch Equilibrium before it leaves Netflix on June 7.
In Equilibrium, a pre-Batman Christian Bale stars as John Preston, an exemplary officer of a totalitarian regime who turns against his superiors. The film also features a number of “Hey, it’s that guy” faces, including Sean Bean, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs, William Fichtner, Sean Pertwee, and Dominic Purcell just three years before his hit TV show Prison Break.
Set in 2072 after a third World War, the citizens of the totalitarian city-state Libria (complete with a comically obvious red, black, and white flag) are forced to consume emotion-suppressing drugs that keep them complacent with the new world order as they burn relics of the old. (Watching Bale light the Mona Lisa on fire is worth the price of admission alone.) But when John Preston misses a dose, he begins to feel emotions again, leading him to ignite a rebellion.
John Preston is a Grammation Cleric, masters of a martial art known as “Gun kata” (also called “gun fu” by critics and fans of the John Wick series). The premise of gun kata, Equilibrium proposes, is that the “geometric distribution” of any gun battle is statistically predictable. In other words, gun kata teaches how and where to aim at the exact moment one needs to.
“The gun kata treats the gun as a total weapon,” a disembodied computer voice breaks down during an exposition scene, “each fluid position representing a maximum kill zone.”
“By the rote mastery of this art,” a sensei further explains to the audience, “your firing efficiency will rise by no less than 120 percent. The difference of a 63 percent increase, the lethal proficiency makes the master of the gun katas an adversary not to be taken lightly.”
Gun kata is a fictional, impractical martial art invented for Equilibrium, though it existed on film before Christian Bale doing it. Its roots trace back to the “heroic bloodshed” pictures of Hong Kong that emerged in the late ’80s and ’90s, mostly those directed by icon John Woo. Woo’s movies, like A Better Tomorrow (1986); The Killer (1989); and Hard Boiled (1992), all featured action choreography that took cinematic gunfights to the next level with tricks like dual-wielding and continuous camera movement. Without John Woo, there is no John Wick.
But Equilibrium is a compelling anomaly that sits between eras of action movies. Surrounded by The Matrix and X-Men, Equilibrium speculated on humanity’s dark future and tried to imagine what fighting with guns would look like in that dystopia.
Director Kurt Wimmer came up with the movie’s formalized “gun kata” in his backyard and clashed with his choreographer Jim Vickers on how it should look on camera. While Wimmer wanted a fluid movement for the kata, Vickers imagined his Clerics rigid and harsh in their movements.
“We talked at length about the story,” Vickers said in a 2003 interview. “[Kurt Wimmer] told me what he wanted to do on a martial arts level. He set me the challenge to develop sequences that had not been done before on film. We developed a mindset where we were using weapons, like guns, as extensions of the human body. This is basically the philosophy in the martial arts where weapons, be they throwing stars or swords, are strictly an extension of oneself.”
You see a mix between the two all throughout the film. But to underline the movie’s totalitarian themes, Vickers was arguably in the better camp; there is no such thing as fluidity or spontaneity (in other words, emotions) for the Clerics. Martial arts star Bruce Lee invented Jeet Kune Do (forerunner to today’s MMA) because he rejected the rigidity of Chinese kung fu. The Clerics too are rigid and set in their ways. They do not welcome spontaneity, improvisation, or adaptation, but real fights are full of spontaneous moments that require adaptation. This is also why the Clerics are so unprepared for someone like John Preston.
Watch Equilibrium through modern eyes and you’ll find a delightfully cheesy movie with all the right ideas and all the wrong decisions. It’s self-serious and devoid of humor, which in and of itself is a funny thing to witness, and it’s comically on the nose with its dystopian tropes. (I really can’t get over Libria’s flag.)
Throw Equilibrium into a crowd of dystopian science fiction and it feels stifled, ironically conforming to what audiences expect from dystopian fiction. It’s only saving grace is its made up kung fu, which is a blast to watch even now in 2020.
Equilibrium is streaming now on Netflix until June 7.