Equilibrium (2002) – Psychiatry, Politics & Religion as Institutes of Control

*** Unlike my usual blog posts, this one is more of an essay on the film and its implied criticism of institutions of social control. As such, no detailed plot summary is provided and nor is the film reviewed for its strengths and weaknesses etc ***

Equilibrium (2002) as a Critique of Institutions of Social Control

Equilibrium (2002), directed by Kurt Wimmer, is a film set in a futuristic world where post a calamatic world war III the world’s population consumes a daily dose of ‘Prozium II’. This drug allowed humankind to maintain the eponymous ‘equilibrium’ by quelling the experience and expression of emotions, thereby circumventing any chaos or violence fuelled by human emotions. The enforcement of the law and the use of Prozium is ensured by the Tetragrammaton council of ‘clerics’ akin to police officers. As the film begins,

At last peace reigns in the heart of man. At last war is but a word whose meaning fades from our understanding. At last, we are whole. Librians, there is a disease in the heart of man. Its symptom is hate. Its symptom is anger. Its symptom is rage. Its symptom is war. The disease is human emotion. But Libria, I congratulate you, for there is a cure for this disease. At the cost of the dizzying highs of human emotion, we have suppressed its abysmal lows. And you, as a society, have embraced this cure: Prozium. Now we are at peace with ourselves and human kind is one. War is gone. Hate, a memory.

The film serves as a visceral critique of institutions of social control and conformity. This is achieved by plot elements, imagery used in the film and the influential structures set up in its fictional world. Through these various elements, the film intends to question three particular institutions of control; psychiatry, fascist politics and religion.

The references to psychiatry are perhaps the most blatant, made obvious with the naming of the drug ‘Prozium’ – it is no coincidence that the most widely used antidepressant is known as ‘Prozac’.

Prozium – The great nepenthe. Opiate of our masses. Glue of our great society. Salve and salvation, it has delivered us from pathos, from sorrow, the deepest chasms of melancholy and hate. With it, we anesthetize grief, annihilate jealousy, obliterate rage. Those sister impulses towards joy, love, and elation are anesthetized in stride, we accept as fair sacrifice. For we embrace Prozium in its unifying fullness and all that it has done to make us great.

The control and power associated with psychiatry and psychiatric drugs is evident. The use of Prozium is shown to create a black-and-white monotony of conforming masses, without either positive or negative feelings, and completely lacking in creativity or the appreciation of art, music and beauty. This resonates with the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and 1970s in the USA, UK and Europe. Proponents of anti-psychiatry such as R.D. Laing and David Cooper argued that mental illness was an expression of rebellion against forced conformity and that madness, far from being a break-down, was in fact a ‘break through’. Psychiatry was seen to supress people’s true expression of their lived experiences by numbing them with drugs.

Similarly, Equilibrium suggests that the synthetic control of emotions via drugs takes away from our innate human-ness, leaving people as little more than automatons.

John Preston: When we return from the Nether it always reminds me of why we do what we do.

Partridge: It does?

John Preston: [pauses; He takes notice of Partridge’s intonation] I beg your pardon?

Partridge: [Withdraws Prozium-administering device from his pocket and injects himself with it] It does.

In the film, our protagonist, John Preston is renowned for being ‘uncompromising’ – applying the legislated death penalty to his long-time partner, Errol Partridge, for the “sense-offence” of reading W.B Yeats’ poetry, without so much as a flicker of hesitance. As the film notes,

John Preston: Then, I’m sorry.

Partridge: No, you’re not. You don’t even know the meaning. It’s just a vestigial word for a feeling you’ve never felt.

Later we learn that Preston’s reaction to his wife being arrested and sentenced to death was equally cold, numb and detached. Whilst Preston believes (on Prozium) that mandated Prozium use has saved the world from senseless violence, death, war and any ills springing from the volatility of human emotions, Partridge emphasises that it is not quite that simple.

John Preston: There’s no war. No murder.

Partridge: What is it you think we do?

John Preston: No. You’ve been with me, you’ve seen how it can be – the jealousy, rage.

Partridge: A heavy cost. I pay it gladly.

While on Prozium, Preston’s facial expressions are blank, mask-like almost. But as soon as he begins to skip his daily dose, he appears more human, more relatable with more varied emotions becoming apparent in his expressions – fear, hope, concern. This further enhances the film’s implication that psychiatric drugs are harmful and damaging to the human experience. Preston is baffled when asked to consider the reason for his existence by Mary, a captured sense offender and (assumed to be) the deceased Partridge’s girlfriend,

Mary: Let me ask you something.

Mary: Why are you alive?

John Preston: [Breaks free] I’m alive… I live… to safeguard the continuity of this great society. To serve Libria.

Mary: It’s circular. You exist to continue your existence. What’s the point?

John Preston: What’s the point of your existence?

Mary: To feel. ‘Cause you’ve never done it, you can never know it. But it’s as vital as breath. And without it, without love, without anger, without sorrow, breath is just a clock… ticking.

Psychiatry as a malignant form of social control is further stressed through references to the political abuses of psychiatry perpetrated by Nazism and Soviet Russia. Prozium is issued by the government, its use enforced, and those deemed guilty of feeling are burned in chambers – parallels with Nazi genocide are all too clear. Even the tetragrammaton council’s flag is strikingly similar in colour and formation to the Nazi swastika. Furthermore, the idea that those who resist the status quo are ‘offenders’ and are hunted down by the government is reminiscent of the once ubiquitous use of the fictional diagnosis of ‘sluggish schizophrenia’ to suppress resistance in Soviet Russia.

These political parallels are not without purpose. As mentioned earlier, the film questions fascist and dictatorial politics. The tetragrammaton council is headed by an absolute ruler, “Father” (much like the governments of Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler), whose lectures are routinely screened in classrooms, workplaces and public spaces much like historical and contemporary dictatorial propaganda.

Additionally, the destruction of sense-offense materials such as priceless artworks, musical composition, and even valuable antiques of civilisation is again reminiscent of Nazism and its connotations of book-burning and plundering.

In the world of Equilibrium politics has overtones of religion too, in particular the church-based religion of Christianity. Religious references are clear in the naming of the ‘clerics’ (a term usually associated with a priest or religious scholar), and the tetragrammaton council subtly referencing the Holy Trinity and God as the Father. “Father” is never seen in the film, and his orders are carried out by a senior cleric (Du Pont – akin to a Pope) to whom the rest of the clerics are answerable, imitating the structure of the church with an unseen God at the top of the hierarchy followed by a pope, other priests and their congregations. There are strong religious overtones in the following exchange,

DuPont: It is not the will of the Council, it is the will of Father and he is law.

John Preston: Sir… without the logic of process, is it not just mayhem – what we have worked so hard to eradicate?

DuPont: You must understand, Preston, that while you – and even I – may not always agree with it, it is not the message that is important, it is our obedience to it. Father’s will. Call it faith. You have it, I assume?

John Preston: Yes. I have it.

DuPont: Good.

In the film, the tetragrammaton council, as a stand-in for the church, is portrayed as curbing individuality and freedom to preserve its own power and ultimately it is shown to be corrupt and hollow, its leaders enforcing but never themselves resorting to the use of Prozium.

In sum, it is evident that Equilibrium questions mechanism of social control and forced conformity. The film instead favours individualism, free expression and a full human experience. It is only when Preston abandons all three institutions in the form of Prozium, his role as cleric, and his position in the council that he is shown to be truly free.