Future schlock

Despite the cast and premise, Equilibrium is an action flick at heart

How mightily the indie have fallen. From Velvet Goldmine and American Psycho, to the routine sci-fi thriller Equilibrium, Christian Bale has taken a McGregor-esque plunge into action film purgatory.

Equilibrum is a half-baked Futurama of sci-fi cliches and Nuremberg set design that unfolds in a post-World War III future where emotions have been outlawed. Feelings, the opening setup intones, lead to jealousy, rivalries and power lusting, all of which cause the kind of violent conflict the new world order is hoping to eliminate.

But, Houston, we have a problem. From the very inception of Equilibrium, this moratorium on feelings that lead to violent conflict is enforced by a police state founded on violent conflict. Bale is one of the enforcers of the no-smile law as "Clerick" John Preston, whose telepathic skills allow him to sniff out the books, paintings and classical music that inspire those illegal emotions.

In Equilibrium's razzmatazz opening, Preston flushes a hive of subversive "sense offenders" from their hiding place like so many roaches, performing the kind of lightning-speed gun tricks of a Hong Kong action fighter as he blows the touchy-feelies away.

Like much of sci-fi, which uses the future as a way to probe the horrors of the Here and Now, this titular Equilibrium is achieved through a regular injection of a familiar-sounding mood-alleviator called Prozium, which erases feelings — between parents and children, husbands and wives, neighbors, friends, co-workers.

If the drug didn't quell emotional nasties like sexual desire and disgust, the bourgeois-bland wardrobes of this future would surely do it. In an allusion to the lockstep fashions of today, the future is also a world of gray and black neutrals, with the higher ups sporting Armani-ish post-peacoats and the lowlier ranks in soldierly, neat future-Gap.

With the telepathic instincts of a Miss Cleo or a Christie's staffer, Preston is able to sniff out a hiding Mona Lisa, secret caches of Beethoven records and other emotional triggers that tend to make the sense offenders' "secret rooms" look like chintz-covered, high-end junk shoppes. Instead of hoarding Eminem records, Victoria's Secret catalogs and Stephen King books, the pre-WWIII populace apparently became highly elevated right before the Fall.

When he's not blowtorching secret rooms or unleashing some future-style whoop-ass on the Che Guevara-esque rebels in olive green flak jackets and heavy beards, Preston is undergoing a personal bummer. When he skips a dose — and then another, and another — of his Prozium, he starts to feel all soft and fuzzy again. He soon falls for big-eyed rebel gal Mary O'Brian (Emily Watson), a sense offender who's been arrested for the crime of decorating her secret room like the set for a high school production of The Glass Menagerie.

Like many fascist men who are not really in touch with their feelings, Preston at first despises Mary, but then he starts stroking a scrap of her hair ribbon and discovers a fetishy, fascisty kind of love. Many in the audience will find no offense in Bale's rippled, shirtless G.I. Joe physique and the sorta gooey look he gets when he starts thinking about ... feelings.

Threatening to blow Preston's cover is his ambitious, equally pretty-boy partner, Clerick Brandt (Taye Diggs), who seems to be gunning for his job. And Preston's post-Prozium resurgence of feelings is so intense it causes him to commit an act of emotional high treason akin to hoarding crying clown paintings or singing along to Dolly Parton. He rescues a puppy about to be machine-gunned by the Clerick downer-squad and finds himself in a heap of trouble when his PETA sentimentality is discovered.

Bale has perfected the Stallone lip curl invoked whenever an orgy of firepower and ninja moves is about to ensue. Though the storyline of Equilibrium aims for eggheady insight into the ability of art to make us human, the day-to-day business here is pure action film with a nod to the urban gloom of Blade and the Mortal Kombat-techie fight scenes of Matrix.

Used to great effect in the sci-fi-like amorality of American Psycho, Bale's affectless, banal mask has now become simply affected. He is as falsely stoic as testosterone-fueled action heroes of the genre's Rambo and Die Hard glory days, which makes him an oddly perfect but also comic killing machine. When he switches back and forth from killer to feeler, it's as hard to take as Schwarzenegger's schizoid genre shifts from blood-drenched übermensch to the sudden cutie-pie of Kindergarten Cop and Twins.

Director/writer Kurt Wimmer strives for something of a thoughtful Fahrenheit 451 stripe in Equilibrium. But over time, the nonstop action and the contrived surprises used to disguise a thin storyline, grow tedious. Fists definitely triumph over smarts in this vision of the future whose brawny message bears a passing resemblance to its fascist-chic set design.