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Kurt Wimmer seems unable to catch a break. His first movie, One Tough Bastard (1995) was a low-grade B-movie. His third and latest movie just came out in the theaters: Ultraviolet (2006) is an ambitious but failed and completely messed up $30M affair and it looks like it will not even gross $20M in the US. His second movie, Equilibrium (2002), fared even worse. With a budget estimated at $25M, the movie barely registered at the box office here in the US and pocketed a paltry $1.2M. That's right. It's not a typo. $1.2M. Why such a financial failure? Well, at least, it's not because of the poor quality of the movie. Contrary to the other two bad films, this one is really really interesting and good. Rather, through international sales and video sales, the movie had already been profitable and the producers prefered not to engage in a costly wide release and marketting campaign and risk taking a loss. No matter, this movie shows that Director and Writer Kurt Wimmer does possess talent that is yet to be fully rewarded.
Set in a near future, the human race is finally at peace. Or is it? Having decided that human emotions were the root of all evil, the government has manufactured a mind-altering drug, Prozium, that when taken daily suppresses emotions. In this fascist society, not taking the drug is a severely punishable offense and Feeling is considered illegal, often punishable by death. So wars are out, and so is human misery, but the population is effectively sedated and a few don't like that. A secret Police, the Clerics, is charged with the mission of detecting and then suppressing any individual who doesn't comply with the law. John Preston (Christian Bale) is one of the highest ranking Cleric and when he accidentally misses a dose one day, he starts to wonder about what sensing is all about. Confused at first, he starts liking his emerging feelings and eventually becomes the one man capable of overthrowing the system.
The themes are deep with obvious statements about fascism, population control, and drugs. Imagining a society without emotions is in itself challenging and the writer did a decent job there. But the goal is so ambitious that invariably, you'll spot many holes in the story and characters. For example, there seems to be an awful lot of ambition around in this emotion deprived society. Except for the general population which appears like nothing more than sedated puppets, the ruling elite is aggressive, protective, ambitious... and yet they are all taking the drug too. It seems that the only emotion that has really been wiped out is that of compassion and caring towards others which one can hardly argue is the base of human misery. This is a glaring fault in the story but it is easily compensated for by the richness of the movie in many other areas. Characters are overall very crisp and memorable. The fight against the bad side human nature is a complex one.
From a technical point of view, the movie is really excellent. Each costume, each set has a definite personality. The performances are solid and engaging. Finally, the action scenes are really spectacular. In spite of being definitely matrix-esque, the innovative use of hand-guns in battle, the so called Gun Kata, is something that has never been seen before. And that was not easy since handguns have definitely been the source of much innovation in action films. The most recent reinvention was by John Woo in his Hong Kong action films in the 90's and one would have thought that the subject had been pretty much closed. Not so here, and anyone who has seen Ultraviolet (2006) will find great similarities although they are undeniably much better executed here. The choreographies are stunning, and the overall cinematography, the angles, the light and editing wraps all the action scenes up very nicely. Combined with strong motivation, the action scenes are few but sprinkled effectively throughout the story to deliver the emotional impact they must.
If you are like most of the general movie-going population, you probably have never heard of this film. With a single-digit international box office, the film was certainly a spectacular flop. But you don't know what you missed. This is high-concept Sci-Fi, with amazing cinematography and art direction, great and innovative action scenes, and good performances overall. Similarities with the Matrix Trilogy are undeniable, from the costumes, to the martial-arts themed action sequences, but there are enough new things in this film to make it a great experience irrespective of its lineage.
- Laurent Hasson