Set in a future, post-World War III society where emotions have been outlawed, Equilibrium tells the story of John Preston (Christian Bale), a government agent who begins to have doubts about the policy he is enforcing.
Equilibrium is the perfect example why I do not rate lower for derivativeness or unoriginality. The film is basically high-concept combination of Fahrenheit 451 (1966), George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (original published in 1949, film versions appeared in 1954, 1956 and 1984), The Matrix (1999) and a bit of The Wizard of Oz (1939) thrown in for good measure. What matters is not how original the ideas are (assuming it's not a case of plagiarism), as whether something is original or not is an epistemological problem that tells us more about our own familiarity with other material rather than the precedent status of the artwork we're questioning, but how well the material is handled. The high-concept material in Equilibrium is handled brilliantly.
On its surface, after a brief action-oriented beginning, Equilibrium is basically a progression from a fairly complex sci-fi film (meaning simply that it takes a lot of exposition to get up to speed) to a thriller to a "gun fu"-styled actioner. The progression is carried out deftly by writer/director Kurt Wimmer (who unfortunately hasn't shown the same level of elegant panache in other films I've seen from him, including Sphere (1998) and The Recruit (2003)), with all of the genres somewhat present throughout the film. Wimmer is so austerely slick here that Equilibrium sometimes resembles a postmodernist automobile commercial. The transition from genre to genre is incredibly smooth.
The most impressive material on this surface level is the gun fu action stuff, which almost "out-Matrixes" The Matrix in style, if not volume. Preston is so skilled to be an almost invincible opponent. His solitary misstep as a fighter occurs once he gives himself over to emotion. This is nicely related to the common advice from kung fu senseis that emotion lessens one's effectiveness in combat.
Of course a big part of Equilibrium is the set of philosophical points it has to make about emotion. There are sections of the film that are appropriately dialogue-heavy, and Wimmer is more than conspicuous with this (one of two) primary theme(s). Just as important as dialogue for Wimmer's commentary on man's emotions are body language and behavior. Some viewers might see it as a flaw that characters frequently show what they consider to be signs of emotions in their comments or behavior, but that's part of Wimmer's agenda. Because it's difficult to even say just what counts as an emotion, and emotions are so wrapped-up with being sentient beings, it would be difficult if not impossible to fully eliminate them, and it's certainly not recommendable. The cast does an excellent job of portraying characters who are supposed to be mostly emotionless but with cracks in the stoic armor continually poking through.
Wimmer has a harsh view of our society's self-medication epidemic--even the title of the film seems to be a stab at the common claim that drugs like Prozac and Xanax are taken to help one "smooth out", or "equalize", extremes of mood, or extreme dispositions. The Equilibrium government extends this agenda into the tangible material realm as they also attempt to "smooth out" mood swings by eliminating any cultural artifacts that might promote varied moods/emotions. Wimmer seems to see it as a not-too-exaggerated extension of the modus operandi behind Prozac-like drugs.
The other primary theme is one of institutional control. Wimmer has a lot to say about unquestioningly following authorities, and he's careful to show that it's not just governmental authorities that can be a problem. He does this by tightly wrapping religious allegory with his depiction of Equilibrium's government. The leader is known as "Father", and the government secret service members are "clerics". Those outside of this control are shown as authentic, free, individualistic and happy despite the hardships involved with their embrace of forbidden thought/items.
More subtly, Wimmer employs the now overused washed out blue-gray cinematography of late 1990s/early 2000s genre films towards an unusual end. It's not just a stylistic device here, but represents a particular kind of reality. Under the purview of the fascistic government, blue-gray predominates. When glimpses of freedom/authenticity enter the film, the blue-gray look is gone, replaced with strongly saturated warm colors, and occasionally a more nostalgic subdued tone. This is one of the film's similarities to The Wizard of Oz, although maybe not the most significant one.
If you're someone who cherishes originality for its own sake, you might not like Equilibrium as much, but you have much more serious epistemological problems to sort out. Otherwise, this is a film worth watching and thinking about.