The Symbolism of Equilibrium

The 2002 film Equilibrium takes place in the not too distant future. After a devastating third world war society comes together to create a drug to subdue what they believe is the cause of so much hate and violence: a person’s ability to feel. This world is enforced by a soldier called a Cleric whose job it is to eliminate “sense offenders” and keep everything at peace. However, a Cleric by the name of Preston accidentally doesn’t take his daily dose and not only becomes a sense offender but a leader in a revolution. Upon its release many critics lambasted Equilibrium, calling it “a reheated mess that borrows heavily from Fahrenheit 451 and A Brave New World”. Critics had judged the film as having no mind or personality of its own. However, if one were to look deeper into the film they would find that Equilibrium had a mind of its own, using its symbolism and mise-en-scene to convey its meaning and message.

Early in the film Preston suspects that his partner and fellow Cleric Partridge is a sense offender. His suspicions prove right as he finds Partridge in an abandoned church, a symbol of safety and sanctuary, reading a book which is forbidden in society. As Preston stands in front of Partridge his shadow casts over Partridge, symbolizing the oppression of the government over its people. The book Partridge is reading is a collection of poems by William Butler Yeats and the poem he reads to Preston is Aedh Wishes For The Clothes of Heaven.

The poem reads “Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths, Enwrought with golden and silver light, The blue and the dim and the dark cloths Of night and light and the half light, I would spread the cloths under your feet: But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

The poem is about someone who loves another so much that he would lay his dreams, his only possession in the whole world, under the feet of that who loved to walk upon. Partridge knows he is caught and will die; his mission a failure. All he now has are his dreams which he lays before Preston in hopes that his partner might see the error of his ways and become a better man.

Partridge using Yeats to defend himself
Partridge using Yeats to defend himself

The scene escalates with Partridge making a move for his gun, causing Preston to draw his. The camera cuts to each character’s first person perspective as Partridge stares down the barrel of Preston’s gun and Preston stares Partridge in the eyes. Partridge slowly raises the book of poems to cover his face to use it as a shield. This symbolizes that even though Partridge will die the words of the book will live on and will haunt Preston from that point forward. As Partridge draws the hammer of his gun back Preston executes him and the camera cuts to an above angle as if it is from God’s perspective, looking down on Preston for what he has done.

After his killing of Partridge, Preston has to meet with Dupont, the right hand man of the new world’s leader. In his debrief Dupont brings up Preston’s wife who was also a sense offender. The scene cuts to a flashback before Preston’s wife was arrested. In the flashback Preston is shown in darker, cold colors while his wife is bathed in a bright, soft, colorful light symbolizing Preston’s repressed emotions and his wife’s freedom. Once Preston’s wife is taken away the light fades back to the darker colors once more.

Preston's Wife
Preston’s Wife

Not long after his debrief with Dupont, Preston accidentally breaks his daily interval of Proziam the drug that represses human emotion and soon begins to feel. One of his first bouts of feeling is when he tears away a frosty film that covers his window and sees the beauty of the sun rising in his city. This first feeling symbolizes the government keeping beauty away from its people and Preston defying the government to see the beauty for himself. Later on as Preston is walking with a congregated mob to work he removes one of his gloves. Typically gloves symbolizing a person hiding their true nature and with Preston removing his for the first time shows his true self. As he walks up a staircase he places his hand on the railing and a soft, ringing sound can be heard. This shows that Preston is feeling a sensation that is completely new and comforting to him. Soon after there is a raid on a sense offender safe house and during a sense offender charges at Preston only for Preston’s new partner, Brandt, to shoot the sense offender in the back. The sense offender falls into Preston’s arms and dies and as Preston drops his body and for the first time sees his gloved hands, the hands of the government, stained with the blood of the innocent and can only look on in horror and remorse.

Preston tears away at his window to see the beauties of the world
Preston tears away at his window to see the beauties of the world

During his development into becoming a rebel against the government Preston begins to notice something about Dupont in one of their meetings. Unlike the rest of society Dupont shows emotions such as arrogance and anger and even moves his hands across his table every so often. Dupont himself is a symbol: The hypocrisy and self-indulgence of the elite. Dupont and the rest of the government control the people with an iron fist, keeping the populace emotionless and exterminating those who dare go against the status quo. Yet Dupont doesn’t follow his own rules. He thinks and feels, he gloats and relishes in the defeat of his enemies and his offices are decorated with bright colors and beautiful paintings and statues. His hypocrisy is evident in his first office as a statue of Atlas stands next to him, falsely showing that he bears the weight of the entire world, and yet his second office is lavish. This is a stark juxtaposition to Preston’s home which is gray and simple with no decorations or anything of worth save for necessary furniture. While the whole of society is condemned to live without emotions and without color, Dupont and the elite live in splendor as they indulge in their emotions and unique comforts.

Dupont indulges in his luxeries
Dupont indulges in his luxeries

Over the course of the film the clothes Preston is garbed in are the black clothes of a Cleric. In traditional filmmaking the color black is meant to symbolize the villain and Preston’s actions before he turns are evident of that fact with his cold executions of sense offenders and Partridge. However, after his growth and evolution as a character Preston is garbed in different clothes by the third act. Before he takes down the government Preston wears a suit of white, the symbol of the hero.

The evolution of a hero
The evolution of a hero

Upon watching Equilibrium one can see the many different symbols it uses to convey its meaning and message. Through the use of camera angles, props, shadows, camera techniques, sets and clothes Equilibrium manages to create brilliant symbolism that causes one to think with each and every viewing of the film. In the end Equilibrium does have a mind, an identity and a personality all its own.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Dona Boyer

    Very well-written article! I enjoyed reading it very much.

  2. Jacque Venus Tobias

    I enjoyed reading your article and am now interested in this movie. As I was going through looking as symbolism I thought perhaps another symbol is within the name DuPont as it brings to mind the chemical company and the impact it has had on the environment.

  3. Aaron Hatch

    I’ve forgotten how well this movie holds up. The story is complicated and deep, and the action is amazing. More movies need gun fights mixed with martial arts.

  4. Why, in a futuristic world, is a lie detector test required? Good grief, wouldn’t a simple blood test have demonstrated whether or not the person in question really had been taking his “meds”?

  5. Equilibrium is a movie that is more fun and a popcorn flick than other films that it is compared to, such as The Matrix.

  6. Packard

    The ideas are worthy of the various young adult dystopian franchises that is prevalent today. They would have the lead be a young girl training to be a cleric. There are some fun concepts being thrown around.

  7. Ludivina

    I loved how Christian Bale really comes in close with his role, but the rest of the actors, with the exception of Sean Bean, didn’t really convince me.

  8. Grovy Rea

    The movie is a fail for me. Everything else can be summed up as another Nolan-wannabe’s emotionally-shallow, philosophically-lame technically-uneven piece of egoistical product.

  9. This movie had me enthralled and in many ways changed the type of books I read and sci-fi films I watched.

  10. Larl Crider

    an admirable work.

  11. When I first watched this, I had no idea what tech-noir was and only had a passing understanding of what a ‘dystopia’ actually was – thanks Orwell and Huxeley.

  12. Salerno

    Sean Bean is really underestimated in this one since he only get the role where the character dies so very quickly at the start.

  13. I feel that this film was dismissed so readily.

  14. This is one of the more interesting dystopain premises.

  15. Ananije

    Amazing review and an amazing film

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