Equilibrium is a thriller tech-noir directed by Kurt Wimmer starring Christian Bale, Sean Bean, and Emilie Watson. The film is derived from George Orwell’s classic 1984, with a story that centres on a utopic society ruled by a leader who claims all emotion and feeling as cause for an inevitable third world war to end human civilization; a premise the government head (Father) uses to mass prescribe an emotion-numbing drug agent called Prozium. However, a top-rated cleric, John Preston (Christian Bale) defies Father by accidentally forgoing his doses of the drug, allowing him to feel forbidden emotions. By becoming a feeler, Preston experiences feeling-inducing relics (books, poetry, painting, music) and emotional experiences which carry a death sentence. Through feeling, Preston learns that the suppression of emotions is a major crime committed against humanity. He then seeks revenge by overthrowing the Father regime he previously protected.
The film’s rich symbolism and irony made me think deeply about society, its rules and how they effect individual human beings.
False Security and Abuse of Power
The drug Prozium, which is prescribed to eliminate threatening emotions (anger, jealousy, sadness, etc.), and emotions in general, induced something more monstrous: disconnectedness with the self and others. In reality, Sethi et al., (2015) claim psychopathy to include antisocial behaviour and emotional detachment/ lack of affect, and apathy (lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern). Interestingly, emotional detachment is a component of psychopathology, which constitutes roughly 15-20% of the prison population (Sethi et al., 2015).
Emotions are what make people human, and removing them equates to characteristics of psychopathology. The dramatic irony is the mass prescription of a pathological numbing agent by a public leader named Father. The word father has deeply rooted meanings that centre on the importance of trust and love (particularly in states of vulnerability). The fearful society believes the Father figure’s prescription of Prozium is the answer to the scary emotions that can lead to the end of the world (through world war 3). The Father then abuses the vulnerability and trust of the people to gain control and abuse the rights of others. Since art imitates life, we see a real representation of this form of power abuse in modern reality.
The Father in Modern Society
Winston Churchill once said, “The empires of the future are the empires of the mind.” Empires will be run through the mass-mind-washing of prescriptive ideologies. We live in a time with constant bombardment of advertisements and programming everywhere; on television, radio, movies, Youtube, webpages, etc. Similarly, the Father displays himself 24/7 on all televisions, radios, and large screens in every scene throughout the film. Father understands that social norm prescriptions are learned through the incidental exposure to stimulus objects (Kwan, Suhui, & Chi-Yue, 2015). In other words, the psychological phenomena known as the mere-exposure effect: instances where people develop preferences for things because of their persistent exposure to them (Kwan et al., 2015). Do people always develop preferences for things because of their persistent exposure to them? As previously mentioned, people are often unaware of the control the effects of mere-exposure have on them. This excerpt from the film My Dinner with Andre has an interesting narrative on being awake vs being asleep to realities we subconsciously accept.
The awakened state of personal distinctiveness is evident during an artistic scene in Equilibrium when white-dressed Preston is running and moving against the slow moving, dark-clothed, uniform crowd. Additionally, animator and writer for Salad Fingers (David Firth) describes some of the psychological strain of such exposure; “I cannot believe how bad TV has gotten- and it almost inspires me to react to it somehow…, it should be really my choice of what to see, but if I see 10 posters in a row of Bruno Mars’s latest album, by the 9th one I am usually seething. So, I just can’t help but write something just to vent my anger, and if it makes its way into a cartoon then, why not (BBC, 2009).” Mr. Firth perfectly captures the mere exposure effect in a in his rebellious short titled, Music Guess, 2009.
Mere-Exposure Effect and Equilibrium
The mere-exposure effect is most likely to be effective when a person experiences a strong motivation for social connectedness (Kwan et al., 2015). Interestingly, Preston deviated from his familiar and trusting Father and sought his own meaning in halting his Prozium doses. This took a lot of courage, as it is insanely difficult to stray from what is seemingly safe and familiar; people have psychological tendencies to stick with what is consistent, and predictable (Schulz, 1976). Nothing could be more predictable than feeling nothing and having a set agenda, however, Preston’s need for personal distinctiveness (Kwan et al., 2015) is likely what drove his courage to end his Prozium doses. This means, that personal distinction and emotional life experiences are important for social connectedness. The Equilibrium society is uniform and similar, yet, disembodied and disconnected. Interestingly, our minds are hardwired to perceive connection when groups are similar to one another as strong bonds are assumed in this solidarity. The most important message in this film is that a society can appear to be connected, yet be horribly detached. You cannot form real connections with others without a real connection with yourself. Erich Fromm mentions how a pathological society limits human needs; The need for relatedness and unity, transcendence and a sense of effectiveness, rootedness, sense of identity, frame of orientation and an object of devotion, excitation and stimulation. None of these basic needs can be met when your right to experience the world is taken from you (i.e., your emotions). Pathology of normalcy adjusts individuals to the pathological demands of society. “the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane”(Fromm, 2013, p. 15). The prescribed normalcy from Equilibrium’s Father is socially enforced between people, “you forget its my job to know what you are thinking!”
Emotions, Knowledge, Pathology , Growth and Social Connectedness
Emotions teach us the world is always changing and with change comes with growth. University Psychology Professor, Claude Lamontagne, provides a clear explanation how the roots of psychopathology stem from rigid thinking and inability to appropriately reflect and accept new ideas; “the whole idea is the growth of knowledge where hypotheses are made and conclusions are formed. There is a process of making generalities of what reality is…, then generalities are proposed. If generalities fail, is another generality opened up? A better or greater truth…? Pathology arises when you start creating things that are not open to refutation anymore, or that are so open to refutation, that they get refuted all the time. “
The Father figure dictates an irrefutable truth which denies people the right to draw their own conclusions. Indeed, he projects the philosophies of his damaged (ideal) self onto others and stunts the growth that can be offered by a persons’ unique and rich experience provided by emotions (denying real connectedness.) The more extreme the disorder of the personality, the more social predators enjoy harming or humiliating and dominating other people (Hunter,2015). Emotions are central to preventing or allowing conclusions to form and people are naturally attuned to trusting their emotions toward the acquisition of knowledge and growth. Growth is love, “love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite” (Mandela, 1995).
The Pathological Society (Equilibrium)
Neurosis begets neurosis. As Fromm states, “the culture provides patterns which enable them to live with a defect without becoming ill. It is as if each culture provided the remedy against the outbreak of manifest neurotic symptoms which would result from defect produced by it. If the opiate against the socially patterned defect were withdrawn, the manifest illness would make its appearance. (Fromm, 2013, p. 17)” Within the Equilibrium society, this remedy is the Prozium drug, whereas in our society the remedy is likely technology/social media based. If we removed this remedy, it would be interesting to see what happens and what the manifest illness is. Freedom to do and have versus freedom to be; the importance of facing yourself, rather than fixing yourself.
The John Preston Challenge
This is a challenge that a professor of mine, Mariusz Zadrag, proposed to his students: Go four weeks without: the internet (except for work/ other important things), Facebook, MySspace, etc. (see the people in person), iPod, cd-player, tv, movies music (go see it live instead), no magazines (read good books instead), no phone (only emergency use.) By doing this, we are forced to face ourselves rather than fix ourselves. Technology (artificial interaction) has become like Prozium in equilibrium society. What do you gain in your life when you remove the societal opiate of choice?
If you choose to take the John Preston Challenge, please leave your comments and insights below.