… Equilibrium: the part when the feelings-detector goes cold. [Warning: spoiler alert]
In Equilibrium, no one is allowed to feel emotion; as the cause of all humanity’s suffering, it has been abolished (via a chemical solution), and anyone caught feeling – or trafficking in sensory objects such as paintings, books, music, or baubles – is summarily executed. We follow John Preston, a Grammaton cleric (the elite, almost-automaton force that finds and eradicates sense-offenders), as he inadvertently finds feelings, and, through them, begins to question the wisdom and ethics of what he and his government have done.
Of course he becomes part of the underground. Of course he is being watched by his own people. Of course, because it is an action movie, John Preston is a total ninja – displaying incredible martial arts skills while dispatching the “wicked” without expression or remorse. As he develops more feelings, however, he grows increasingly unable to control them, and his ability to do his job dwindles to the point of extinction. His emotions also trump his intuitive training – he becomes easier to misdirect, at least by those who spend their lives misdirecting others – and when he sits in the chair connected to the feelings-detector, he seems less hurt by the fact that he has been set up than by the fact that he allowed himself to be duped. In a few seconds, his face reflects every emotion he’s having: betrayal, incredulity, sadness, self-criticism, anger … and all the while, the little needle on the paper is moving so frantically that we see more ink than paper. From pragmatic, emotionless cleric, John has been reduced to a man so overwhelmed by emotion that he trembles while deciding which one to feel first.
But then he remembers: he is a Grammaton cleric. He is a total ninja with incredible martial arts skills. His extensive training allows him to dispatch the wicked without expression or remorse. The emotions leave his face, and the little needle of the feelings-detector stops moving – one line on the paper.
And then he dispatches the wicked.
Is the movie about how wrong it is to suppress human emotions? Yes. Is it about how futile it is to try to suppress human emotions? Of course. But in that instant, when the detector goes cold, we see why it’s wrong and futile – human emotions have little to do with what John does, but everything to do with who he does it to. Emotions – like empathy, love, betrayal – allow him to see who is really wicked; emotions allow him to make ethical distinctions, to judge what is good and what is evil. And what does he do with all those things that emotions allow him to see? – he acts in a way completely devoid of emotion of any kind. In a society that had hoped emotionlessness would be the answer to evil, John Preston shows them that emotions and actions are two entirely different things – that ultimately emotions only change the balance between who we protect and who we destroy.
John chooses to act for the sake of good – a choice he could not have made without feelings. He chooses to become an overwhelming force against those who try to control others, using the very tools the “bad guys” gave him. He’s certainly intimidating as an implacable cleric, but when he puts his heart into it … he’s unstoppable.