When he told me that he could suddenly see the most amazing colors, I called the medics. Blind people cannot see. He must be losing his mind.
Equilibrium is a sci-fi film (starring Christian Bale), its story set in a futuristic society where emotions are illegal and all forms of education and entertainment have been suppressed to keep the population in check.
The goal of this society is simple: prevent humanity from destroying itself, as it almost did, before the rise of Libria. Libria is the new city model where everyone is rational and passion-free – and Prozium is the new drug that makes them so.
To help guarantee order and stability, a special security force called the the Grammaton clerics has been put together. Trained in lethal combat and supremely in control of themselves, they’re the ultimate weapons against sense-offenders.
But things are bound to change. One day, the Grammaton’s most prominent member, Cleric Preston, fails to take his dose and begins to sense things. His life changes as a result, and so does the course of Libria’s future.
The premise of Equilibrium is classic, borrowing – too heavily, some may say – from 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. Still, it’s adapted to the tastes of a post-millennium audience, sharpening its scope and upping the stakes with imaginative close combat sequences involving firearms, coolly referred to as gun katas (from the martial arts term kata, meaning choreographed moves). All this without compromising its statement.
Why are stories like Equilibrium so popular? To answer this question, let’s go back in time, to the allegory of the cave, by Plato. In this simple cautionary tale we find Socrates, the philosopher, describing to Glafkon, his apprentice, how people living forever inside a cave – facing a wall their entire lives – are bound to have a warped view of reality. All they can see are their shadows dancing on the wall, and the glow of a fire behind them.
The question then arises: How truly astounding will a world of light and nature appear to these troglodytes? How outrageous, ominous, even fake, will it seem to them?
Socrates drives his point home by asking Glafkon what happens when one of the cave dwellers ventures outside, into the wide-open world of day and night, sky and horizon, beholding the mythical world beyond the cave for the first time. (The dweller is male, so we’ll refer to him as such.) How will he react to the spectacle? More importantly, how will his fellow cave-dwellers react to his description of it?
The answer is disappointing, yet, logical. Convinced that their fellow has gone crazy, the cave dwellers destroy the lie-speaking adventurer to dispel the myth of a world beyond their own, and return to their routine.
Contact, a visionary movie based on the novel of the same name by Carl Sagan, tells the cave-dweller story all too well. In a nutshell, Dr. Ellie Arroway, researcher for the SETI program (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), has devoted all her life to coming to contact with alien life, but has nothing to show for years of dedicated work. All this is about change when she picks up a signal from space, which turns out to be an alien communication. It’s an event that sends massive ripples round the globe. The states of the world come together to build a machine, based on the instructions received from said extra-terrestrial signal. Arroway is involved in the project, and eventually becomes part of the team that sets out to make contact.
Contact is made. It’s strange and dreamlike, nothing like she anticipated. The experience is humbling, and leaves its mark.
But when Arroway reports her findings to the committees, no one believes her. The tribunals of society rush to eliminate all allusions to a world beyond what they sanction, labeling Ellie as a fraud, or crazy, preferably both, and reality is set back on familiar track.
Such stories on light and darkness, on seeing and not seeing, on experience versus ignorance, have shaped human development since time immemorial. They’re embedded in folk stories and religion, in songs and cautionary tales. Modern society, rational as it has become to a large degree, remains in thrall of them, making classics out of them. The pursuit of knowledge and happiness are notions deeply ingrained in all societies, secular or religious, to each their own. We all know there’s something more than meets the eye; we hint at its discovery all the time. We just haven’t found a way to come to terms with it whenever it comes our way. It’s too disturbing to deal with, be it alien or homegrown, literal or metaphorical, physical or mental. Our familiarity with what we know is too precious to forego.
So we come up with cautionary tales every now and then to make sure we don’t get carried away the next time we’re faced with something groundbreaking, whatever it may be.
In theory, this is enough to keep us open minded. In reality, we resist the extraordinary at will, even in light of evidence.
Science, by the way, of all things, isn’t immune to this censorship, and neither is exploration. Both fields make excellent villains and, thus, convicts. They’re prone to dogma and censorship, bias and self-fulfilling prophecy.
Then good news is that we wake up to the reality, if not sooner, then in due course. Given time, we come to our senses and acknowledge what lies before us, and take a leap into the future, out of the cave and into the wider world, expanding our horizons.