Equilibrium is a bad film, make no mistake. Christian Bale is a cleric in a fascist state that oppresses emotions because emotions are the cause of all human conflict. To get rid of conflict, the State mandates its citizens take medication which suppresses emotional responses… and murders anybody who doesn’t take their medication. It’s so wonderfully stupid: if the point is to abolish conflict, why is so much violence needed to effect it?
Despite all of that, it’s an enjoyable film if, like me, we want to see how pop-culture conceives authority.
George Orwell’s 1984 has jumped into our lexicon as the straw man fascist state, but there’s an extent to which actual fascists occupy a similar role. When the Reclaim Australia protests took place, we knew that they were fascists because they wore the symbols of fascism. To no small extent, their protests make it easier for us to quarantine fascism: we can rally against the people who look like fascists. We know that we ourselves are not fascistic because we do not look like fascists. We know that we do not live in a fascist society because we do not have Ministries of Truth and Love, and we don’t use words euphemistically. Our liberal society is antithetical to the fascism of the Reclaim Australia crowd, the Orwellian Big Brother, and the clerics of Equilibrium because we value individuality, free markets, and human rights.
This is little but self-deception. Confusing the symbols with the thing itself means that we don’t think about the thing itself in absence of the symbols. A Nazism that lacked the symbols of Nazism is one of the greatest threats to contemporary liberty. We don’t wear brown shirts, but we don’t hire people with ‘Muslim’ names. We don’t say good morning to a picture of Dear Leader, but we gossip about the homosexual primary school teacher. We fight to the death for your right to say things that we disagree with, your right to humiliate ethnic minorities.
The deception arises from our adolescent hostility towards authority. ‘Nanny State’ for example reflects the gendered fear of being infantilised/dominated by women in positions of authority. It becomes axiomatic that all kinds of authority are illegitimate: nobody has the right to tell you how to live your life, or judge you, or shame you, or prohibit antisocial behaviour, or compel you to improve yourself.
And we justify it by reference to the stock standard fascists: How could our hostility towards authority be adolescent when Nazism actually happened? Only the most extreme rejection of authority will ensure that Nazism never happens again.
Which is, of course, a lie. Another Nazism is inevitable and it will happen using the current language of ‘liberty’. We will prevent the State from amassing enough power to hinder Nazism through regulation using the language of liberty — we have a right to be a bigot, after all — and then we will whitewash the power structures that keep underclasses segregated — it’s just market forces and how dare anybody suggest that we need antidiscrimination legislation to force employers to hire minorities?
Equilibrium makes us feel safe because we will recognise the rise of totalitarianism. People will wear more black. Police will have more weapons. We will be forced to regulate our emotions. There’s no way that we could wake up one morning and discover that we’d been unwitting participants in the rise of another fascist state.