“Forget the Matrix” reads the DVD front-cover copy from some ill-advised reviewer of this winter 2002 release starring Christian Bale in a very Matrix-ish collarless jacket. In fact, in a lot of ways this movie can be likened to an attempt to meld the political world of Nineteen Eighty-Four with the visual aesthetic of the Wachowski’s masterworks (both The Matrix and V for Vendetta), with a little dose of Brave New World to boot. Those are all some pretty good works in their own right, so how could this movie possibly go wrong?
Well, to be fair, it’s all just a little bit silly. The film is set in the fictional future city-state of Libria (where everyone except the leaders speak with American accents – the leaders somehow seem pseudo-mid-Atlantic British – except for Bale, who uses his faux American accent). In this world, the biggest crime is to feel, and those that do are called sense-offenders. The reasoning behind the choice to remove emotion seems somewhat justified – humanity has survived a Third World War, and the few remaining powers that be decide that human emotion is just too dangerous – there’s no way we could survive a fourth big war. Through the aid of a specially tailored drug, “Prozium”, taken in daily doses, society is able to reform around a logic-based emotionless paradigm.
Running this whole thing is Father [Sean Pertwee], an obvious allusion to Orwell’s Big Brother, who appears on large monitors (telescreens, anyone?) constantly spouting platitudes and propaganda. Inevitably, there is a resistance, called “The Underground.” (Underground? Prozium? Libria? Not a lot of creativity with the naming here.) They live in the bombed out ruins of World War Three, and there read banned materials and view banned media, and, well, feel. To fight against this resistance, the government of Libria trains their highest level operatives, the Grammaton Clerics, in a specialized martial art called Gun Kata. The government – or Tetragrammaton Council (the names! my ears are bleeding!) – utilizes these Clerics along with a state police to maintain order and destroy anything that does not comply – artwork, literature, or human. The penalty for feeling or possessing things that induce emotion is death.
Grammaton Cleric First Class John Preston [Christian Bale] is their chief tool of order, and the movie begins as we follow he and his partner, Grammaton Cleric FC Errol Partridge [Sean Bean] on a mission to expose a group of sense-offenders. In doing so, we get a brief taste of what Gun Kata is capable of, and we also get a sense of the stakes involved – on top of the pile of hidden artwork slated to be incinerated is nothing short of La Gioconda, the Mona Lisa herself. During the raid, Partridge personally seizes a collected copy of Yeats’s poetry (“What rough beast” indeed). This inevitably leads to a confrontation between the partners, and some introspection from Preston as he faces new challenges. Things go from bad to worse for him when he accidentally breaks a vial of his Prozium medication, causing him to experience the forbidden for the first time.
The story has several interesting if rather stereotypical characters, with stalwarts Bale and Bean up front, ambitious (isn’t ambition an emotion?) Cleric Brandt [Taye Diggs] , slimy Council point-man Dupont [Angus Macfadyen], and several prominent members of the Underground: Mary O’Brien [Emily Watson] as the requisite potential love interest on the other side, Jurgen [William Fichtner] as the apparent lackey who’s really much, much more, and Dominic Purcell in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role as Seamus, a tough resistance fighter at the very beginning of the film. With a cast like this, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, I’ve already hinted at it above. For the most part, there isn’t really anything original here. Everything from the basic plot to the characters to the look of this film has been borrowed from other, superior works. The action sequences are full of strobes and quick cuts, which greatly reduces their effectiveness. And the Gun Kata sequences and a later sword fight were already done, and done much better, in The Matrix (and to be fair, has been done many, many times before that as well – it’s not like the Wachowskis themselves didn’t borrow a little here and there). I like many of the actors involved in the project, and some of them actually do very good work here (I particularly liked Diggs in this movie), but it is clearly a case of the sum being less than the value of its parts. If you’re looking for some cheesy action for a boring Saturday night, there are really many other better options out there. Only watch if you’re a big fan of the actors involved, as they’re really the best part of the film, despite writer/director Kurt Wimmer’s attempts to maintain an emotionless banality.
Steve’s Rating: (5 / 10)
The lack of emotion from the characters actually closely correlates to how much you’re likely to care for this movie. Matrix-lite.
Director: Kurt Wimmer
Writers: Kurt Wimmer (written by)
Starring: Christian Bale, Sean Bean, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs, Angus MacFadyen, William Fichtner, Sean Pertwee
Release Date: December 6, 2002
Runtime: 1 hr, 47 mins.
MPAA Rating: R