Music as Emotional Expression: Equilibrium (2002)

Not too long ago, I had a slight obsession with dystopian films and literature (to be fair, I still do, just not as much). In my search for films on this topic, I stumbled across Equilibrium (2002) while I was in high school. Imagine every dystopian book you’ve ever read or heard of: 1984, We, The Giver, Fahrenheit 451, etc. Now combine them all into one and that gives you a rough idea of the world in Equilibrium.


In this world, all emotion is forbidden (because it leads to unbalance, war, famine, etc.) and the world is seemingly a utopia as a result. There is no violence, no crime, no…anything! This is because anything that can cause emotion (books, music, art, pets, even the view from a window) are forbidden as well. All of the clothes are in neutral shades of white, beige or black. And to ensure that no emotions are felt, all people are subjected to a dose of medicine taken at a certain hour, that blocks all emotional responses. Failure to take ones “dose” results in being arrested and sentenced to death by incineration (a fate that has already befallen the protagonist’s wife before the story opened).


The hero turns out to be John Preston (Christian Bale), a high-ranking Cleric and the father of two children. After busting a cell of “sense offenders” (people who refuse to take the “dose” and thus feel emotions), Preston is forced to execute his partner (Sean Bean) when he sees him saving a book of poems instead of destroying it. And after Preston accidentally misses his “dose,” he begins to feel emotions for the first time and his whole life is turned upside down.

Music plays a huge role in this film (Klaus Badelt assembled the score). When the story begins, the music is kept to the bare minimum (like during an action or fight scene). There is initially no background music (aside from generic diegetic music). But as Preston slowly begins to discover his emotions, the music begins to emerge and change the dynamic of the story. There is a pivotal moment when, in the midst of busting another group of “sense offenders,” Preston notices a record player. Ordering everyone out, he puts on a record that plays Beethoven’s 9th symphony and the music thunders through the room (as it does through Preston’s mind).

Equilibrium – Preston hears the 9th Symphony

Then, in one of my favorite moments, Preston wakes up early one morning around sunrise and hears rain falling against the window (which is covered over with paper). Now curious, he slowly tears the paper away to reveal a beautiful sunrise as a quick summer rain falls. The music begins to swell once again as Preston, perhaps for the first time in his life, appreciates the beauty of a sunrise.

Equilibrium – Sunrise

But the most powerful moment comes when Preston arrives too late to save a “sense-offender” woman that he has come to love. As a Cleric, he has the power to stop the execution, but once she is locked inside the death chamber, it’s too late and Preston can only watch powerless as she dies in front of him. He manages to walk out calmly, but then collapses in agony on the steps as emotions finally spill out of him. The music is so powerful here, swelling, bursting, describing a man dealing with emotions he does not know how to handle or express.

Equilibrium – The Execution

While Equilibrium has gotten less-than-favorable reviews in the past, I love how the film uses music to trace Preston’s journey from unfeeling Cleric to loving father. It’s definitely worth sitting through (and listening to) at least once.

See also: Film Soundtracks A-W

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