Dir: Kurt Wimmer. US. 2002. 107 mins.

You could call Equilibrium a poor man's Minority Report. Or, for that matter, a poor man's Fahrenheit 451, 1984 or The Matrix. Unimaginatively derivative and silly without being fun, this sci-fi thriller from Miramax's Dimension label comes equipped with a mid-level Anglo-American cast but is likely to appeal only to sci-fi fanatics, and even they will probably wait to catch it on video or TV. Dimension has a knack for turning a profit from unpromising genre movies, but it couldn't do much with Equilibrium when the film opened last weekend at 301 US sites for a meagre $541,512 three-day total. Independent distributors outside the US will be equally challenged, though the film's cast and Berlin locations might incite some interest in the UK and Germany.

The project (which, in Jan De Bont, shares a producer with Minority Report) marks the major league directing debut of screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (The Thomas Crown Affair, Sphere), who also wrote the script. The story unfolds in the futuristic, post-World War III nation of Libria, where emotion, identified as the root cause of war and crime, has been outlawed. Emotion stimulators like music, poetry and art have been banned and citizens are required to take a daily dose of numbing designer drug Prozium or risk a death sentence for committing a 'sense offense'. Maintaining the emotionless order is the job of the Clerics, stern, leather-coated government officials trained to sniff out sense offenders and tackle them with Gun-Kata, a lethal mix of martial arts and gunslinging.

John Preston (Bale) is a devout and efficient Cleric who even stood by when his wife, and the mother of his children, was arrested as a sense offender. One day, however, after dispatching a backsliding colleague, Preston decides to skip his Prozium. Secretly taking up the cause of the feeling underground, he finds himself allied with captured sense offender Mary (Watson) and engaged in a battle of wits with fellow Cleric Brandt (Diggs).

The story's central conceit seems like a promising beginning, but, as spun out by Wimmer's script, the concept of criminalised emotion proves too vague to generate much excitement or drama. The film's portentous tone, meanwhile, has a numbing effect of its own, at least until things turn laughably sentimental when a cute puppy helps awaken the warm and fuzzy side of the previously icy Preston.

Other elements are disappointingly generic. The production design - by Wolf Kroeger, who made a more successful contribution to Buena Vista's recent sci-fi/fantasy hit Reign Of Fire - is standard sci-fi neo-fascist (locations include Berlin's Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstadt). Stunts and effects are adequate but relatively few and Gun-Kata turns out to be a pretty pedestrian variation on the exaggerated martial arts that now seem to be de rigueur in Western sci-fi.

Plot and staging leave the actors little room to maneuver. Bale, who was most recently seen starring in Reign Of Fire, remains stony faced through most of the story and does not change much when Preston begins to rediscover his true human nature. Diggs (who broke through with How Stella Got Her Groove Back and next appears in Chicago) feels miscast as the cruel and calculating Brandt and Watson is underused as the dewy-eyed Mary. Supporting players include Fichtner (Black Hawk Down) as the leader of the underground rebels, MacFadyen (Braveheart) as Preston's boss and Bean as Preston's original and ill-fated Cleric sidekick.

Prod cos: Dimension Films, Blue Tulip
US dist:
Int'l sales:
Exec prods:
Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Andrew Rona
Jan De Bont, Lucas Foster
Dion Beebe
Prod des:
Wolf Kroeger
Tom Rolf, William Yeh
Klaus Badelt
Main cast:
Christian Bale, Emily Watson, Taye Diggs, Angus MacFadyen, Sean Bean, Matthew Harbour, William Fichtner