The film follows John Preston (Bale), an enforcement officer in a future in which both feelings and artistic expression are outlawed and citizens take daily injections of drugs to suppress their emotions. After accidentally missing a dose, Preston begins to experience emotions, which makes him question his own morality and moderate his actions while attempting to remain undetected by the suspicious society in which he lives. Ultimately, he aids a resistance movement using advanced martial arts, which he was taught by the very regime he is helping to overthrow.
Equilibrium is set in 2072 in Libria, a city-state established by the survivors of World War III, which devastated the world, where a totalitarian government requires all citizens to take daily injections of "Prozium II" to suppress emotion and encourage obedience. All emotionally stimulating material has been banned, and "Sense Offenders" – those who fail to take their Prozium – are put to death, as the government claims that the cause of all wars and violence is emotion. Libria is governed by the Tetragrammaton Council, led by "Father", who is seen only on giant video screens throughout the city. At the pinnacle of Librian law enforcement are the Grammaton Clerics, who are trained in the martial art of gun kata. The Clerics frequently raid the "Nether" regions outside the city to search for and destroy illegal materials – art, literature, and music – and execute the people hiding them. A resistance movement, known as the "Underground", emerges with the goal of toppling Father and the Tetragrammaton Council.
John Preston (Christian Bale) is a high-ranking Cleric. His wife, Viviana (Alexa Summer and Maria Pia Calzone), was executed as a Sense Offender. Following a raid, Preston notices his partner, Errol Partridge (Sean Bean), saving a book of poems instead of turning it in for incineration. Preston tracks down Partridge, who is hiding in the Nether region reading the book. Partridge confesses to Preston that he believes he was wrong to serve the government. He acknowledges that the consequences of feeling emotions are a "heavy cost", but remarks, "I pay it gladly" as he slowly reaches for his gun. Preston is forced to execute him.
Preston dreams occasionally about his wife and the day she was arrested. After Preston accidentally breaks his daily vial of Prozium, his son Robbie enters and reminds him that he needs to report the loss and request a replacement, but Preston is unable to before going on the next raid. As a result, he begins to experience brief episodes of emotion that evoke memories, stir feelings, and make him more aware of his surroundings. He intentionally skips more doses of Prozium and hides them behind the mirror in his bathroom.
Preston's partner is replaced with career-conscious Brandt (Taye Diggs), who expresses his admiration for Preston's "uncompromising" work as a cleric. On their first raid, they arrest Mary O'Brien (Emily Watson), a citizen identified as a Sense Offender. To Brandt's surprise, Preston prevents him from executing O'Brien on the spot, saying that he wants to keep her alive for interrogation. Brandt grows suspicious of Preston's hesitation to execute Sense Offenders and destroy contraband. As a result of his new secret emotions, Preston feels remorse for having killed Partridge, and he also develops an emotional relationship with O'Brien. Preston eventually uncovers clues that lead to a meeting with Jurgen (William Fichtner), the leader of the Underground resistance. Jurgen convinces him that Father must be assassinated. They plan to disrupt Prozium production in an attempt to spark a popular uprising.
Preston is brought before Vice-Counsel DuPont (Angus Macfadyen), who reveals that there is a traitor in the upper ranks of the Clerics. DuPont appears to be onto Preston, but then assigns him the task of uncovering and stopping the traitor. Relieved to learn he has not been implicated, Preston accepts and renews a promise to locate the Underground's leadership. He learns of O'Brien's scheduled execution, but Jurgen advises against interfering, which could sabotage plans for the revolution. Jurgen decides to allow the leaders of the resistance to be captured by Preston, so that Preston can gain the government's trust in order to approach Father and assassinate him. Unable to bear O'Brien's execution, Preston unsuccessfully rushes to stop it. Brandt catches Preston having an emotional breakdown in the streets, arrests him, and brings him before the Vice-Counsel. Preston tricks DuPont into believing that Brandt is the real traitor. Following Brandt's arrest, Preston is informed that a search of his home will take place as a formality. He rushes home to destroy the hidden vials, only to find his son – who stopped taking Prozium after his mother died – already has.
Preston turns in Jurgen and others from the resistance, and as a reward, is granted an exclusive audience with Father. Upon arriving, he discovers that Brandt was not actually arrested but was part of a ruse to expose Preston and the Underground. DuPont is also revealed as the real Father; he had secretly replaced the original Father after his death. It also becomes clear that DuPont does not take Prozium and can feel emotions. He taunts Preston, asking him how it felt to betray the Underground. Enraged, Preston fights his way through an army of bodyguards into DuPont's office and defeats Brandt in a katana battle. In a final gun kata showdown with DuPont, Preston wins. DuPont pleads for his life reminding Preston that he represents life and feeling and asks, "Is it really worth the price?" Preston responds with Partridge's last words, "I pay it gladly", shoots DuPont, and destroys the command center that broadcasts propaganda videos of Father. The Underground carries out the destruction of Prozium manufacturing and storage facilities and attacks key points throughout the city. Preston watches the successful revolution with satisfaction from above in DuPont's office, as a smile breaks across his face.
Vice-Counsel DuPont (Angus Macfadyen) describes the gun kata in the film:
Through analysis of thousands of recorded gunfights, the Cleric has determined that the geometric distribution of antagonists in any gun battle is a statistically-predictable element. The gun kata treats the gun as a total weapon, each fluid position representing a maximum kill zone, inflicting maximum damage on the maximum number of opponents, while keeping the defender clear of the statistically-traditional trajectories of return fire. By the rote mastery of this art, your firing efficiency will rise by no less than 120%. The difference of a 63% increased lethal proficiency makes the master of the gun katas an adversary not to be taken lightly.
Gun kata is a fictional gun-wielding martial art discipline. Kata (型, かた) is a Japanese word for standard forms of movements and postures in karate, jujutsu, aikido, and many other traditional martial arts. Gun kata is based on the premise that, given the positions of the participants in a gun battle, all trajectories of fire are statistically predictable. By memorizing the positions, one can fire at the most likely location of an enemy without aiming at him in the traditional sense. By the same token, the trajectories of incoming fire are also statistically predictable, so by assuming the appropriate stance, one can keep clear of the most likely path of enemy bullets.
The gun kata shown in Equilibrium is a hybrid mix of the film's writer and director Kurt Wimmer's own style of gun kata (invented in his backyard) and the martial arts style of the fight choreographer Jim Vickers, with elements of the Chinese Wing Chun martial art style.
Most of the filming used locations in Berlin, due to its unique mixture of fascist and modern architecture. According to the visual effects supervisor Tim McGovern, who worked alongside Kurt Wimmer, the fascist architecture was chosen "to make the individual feel small and insignificant so the government seems more powerful". In addition, the modern architecture of Berlin emphasizes the futuristic and stolid appearance of the city-state of Libria. Libria's thick walls are represented by an abandoned fortress-like East German military base, while the exterior of the city, where many of the surviving rebels reside, was filmed in decrepit neighborhoods of East Germany. In addition to the geographic location, a few European art directors also made substantial contributions to the production.
Equilibrium's locations include:Olympic Stadium (Berlin), built for the 1936 Summer Olympics.
Deutschlandhalle, also built for the 1936 Summer Olympics.
Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Berlin Tempelhof Airport, construction of which was begun before the Nazi era, but which was completed during World War II and displays characteristics of the Nazis' architectural style.
Bundestag (Berlin U-Bahn) station, a modern subway station near the new Reichstag building, plus some long tunnels of the Berlin U-Bahn. At the time the film was made, the Bundestag was unopened, but in 2009, it went into service.
Decrepit East German neighborhoods, as well as an abandoned massive East German military base.
The EUR, Rome district, built during the rule fascist Benito Mussolini.
Although making a science fiction movie, Wimmer intentionally avoided using futuristic technology that could become obsolete, and he also decided to set his story in an indeterminate future. "I wanted to create more of an alternate reality than get caught up in the gadgetry of science fiction," he explained. "In fact, there’s no technology in Equilibrium that doesn’t already exist. It’s more like a parallel universe, the perfect setting for a parable."
The review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 38% of critics gave the film positive reviews and an average rating of 4.8/10, based on 84 reviews, with the site's consensus stating "Equilibrium is a reheated mishmash of other sci-fi movies." Metacritic gave the film a score of 33 out of 100, based on reviews from 22 critics, indicating "generally unfavorable reviews".
Elvis Mitchell of The New York Times dismissed Equilibrium for having heavily borrowed from Fahrenheit 451, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, and other science fiction classics.
Roger Ebert awarded the film 3 stars out of 4, noting that "Equilibrium would be a mindless action picture, except that it has a mind. It doesn't do a lot of deep thinking, but unlike many futuristic combos of sf and f/x, it does make a statement."
Wimmer said in a Dreamwatch magazine interview that "the paying customers seemed to get it," and said the critics "didn't seem to see that the film had a different message than" Fahrenheit 451 or 1984. Responding to the critics' views, Wimmer later said, "Why would I make a movie for someone I wouldn't want to hang out with? Have you ever met a critic who you wanted to party with? I haven't."
The film had an estimated production budget of $20 million. International pre-release sales had already made a profit, so the studio reduced the film's promotion and advertising budget to avoid the risk of the film losing money; as a consequence, theatrical release was limited.
The film was shown in only 301 theaters at its widest release in the United States, earning $541,512 in its opening week, and only $1.2 million when it closed on December 26, 2002; the film earned $4.1 million internationally, for a total of $5.3 million worldwide.