Now comes a strange interlude in the holiday film release schedule. The Thanksgiving movies have already landed and sucked in their gazillions of dollars. Meanwhile, there’s another week to go before we get hammered by Gangs of New York, The Two Towers and Catch Me if You Can, not to mention the strong lineup of so-called indie films (Adaptation, Talk to Her, etc.) that are presently circling in a holding pattern above us.

Studios are dumping their bad hands into this void–or at least what they perceive to be the sure losers. Miramax’s current cast-off is Equilibrium, and, as far as it goes, the green-eyeshade guys are right. This one’s going to lose a lot of money, since there’s no clear audience for the futuristic thriller that slipped into two Triangle theaters over an electricity-challenged weekend. Fifty years ago, Equilibrium would have been perfectly at home as a B-movie: Audiences would have gone to it with minimal expectations and been rewarded in spades for their optimistic pessimism.

Plenty of current movies–Die Another Day and I Spy come to mind–are just as lame-brained as those old radioactive alien flicks. When Time magazine, the AOL home page and our television sets promote such fare as urgent, unmissable parts of our weekly Zeitgeist, they’re given a prime spot in our cultural consciousness.

The problem with Equilibrium isn’t that it’s worse than Die Another Day–in fact, it’s better. But since stars Christian Bale, Emily Watson and Taye Diggs aren’t big enough to “open” the film, the studio decided against spending the minimum millions required to buy an Entertainment Weekly cover.

That’s all that really separates Equilibrium from the very similar, Tom Cruise-enhanced (but scarcely better) Minority Report. Equilibrium‘s fate would be a bigger shame if it was a good movie. It’s not quite that, but it’s not bad, either. One spends the first half laughing at it, before realizing it’s actually a competent pulp excursion.

Director Kurt Wimmer cribbed the script from Orwell’s 1984. His film is set in a future neo-fascist society whose citizens have been zombified by legally mandated daily injections of “Prozium.” Emotions have been outlawed for the sake of global harmony, and the drug suppresses them. Everywhere, giant television screens project the image of the society’s leader, promoted here from Big Brother to “Father.” Thanks to Father’s wisdom–and mind control–there is no crime, disease or war. It’s a neutered world–but one which seems strangely circumscribed by the limits of the film’s set.

The film opens with a pair of “clerics,” or mind-cops, on the prowl for “sense-criminals”–people who think illegal thoughts and experience verboten emotions. One cop, Preston, is an unquestioning believer in Father, despite having lost his “ex-spouse” due to a sense crime she’d committed. Preston is played by Christian Bale, who projects the necessary blankness for the role. Perhaps it’s Botox he’s injecting, not Prozium.

With him is Partridge, a once-good cop turning bad. Partridge consecrates his turn to the outlawed world of feeling by reciting Yeats’ “He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven” (“But I being poor have only my dreams … “) just before Preston shoots him dead.

Preston has two young children. Robbie, the older one, is a cleric-in-training, and Matthew Harbour gives the film’s scariest performance in the role. As in China under Mao, children in this society rat out their parents, and Robbie already holds terrifying sway over his father. He notices when his father misses a dose of Prozium and orders him to report to the appropriate agency to get a makeup injection. For his part, Preston knows better than to disobey his darling little Robespierre.

Before Preston can go get shot, however, Brant, his new partner (played by Diggs), picks him up for a raid on another heretic, one with the un-futuristic, colleen name of Mary O’Brian. Emily Watson plays Mary with the same green, saucer-eyed gaze that she used in Punch-Drunk Love and Red Dragon. Having missed his dose, Preston is already starting to soften. But what really breaks him is his discovery of Mary’s secret lair, appointed with pop artifacts from the long-ago 20th century.

Preston finds a vinyl record, and puts it on the gramophone. The opening chords of Beethoven’s Ninth come blasting out, shattering what is left of Preston’s blinkered vision. (It’s a testament to the enduring power of Beethoven that he can survive so much movie abuse.)

Soon, Preston has made contact with the Underground (who live, somehow undetected, just below the city’s streets). The counter-revolution ensues, with Bale deploying his top-notch martial skills against his employer, much like a turncoat CIA operative: chopping, slashing and shooting dozens of black-helmeted storm troopers. Most fun of all, he has huge pistols that roll out of his sleeves, a la Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver. With his precise, hopped-up kicks and punches, Bale appears to be giving Keanu Reeves a run for his money as an unlikely fey action hero. For Bale fans, this film will be essential for a full appreciation of his career.

Despite the story’s utter lack of originality, the production is helped immeasurably by Wimmer’s fervent belief in the film’s themes. (Wimmer’s most significant prior credit is for the script of The Thomas Crown Affair; his only prior directing credit is something called One Tough Bastard, which starred a former bad boy football player named Brian Bosworth.)

German composer Klaus Badelt’s music features marches of a suitably Teutonic rhythm, and Wolf Kroeger’s entire art department seems drunk on National Socialist design. Kroeger’s sets are out of Fritz Lang’s Weimar-era Metropolis; even the city’s airspace is filled with zeppelins. The Father’s regime has an insignia resembling a swastika, and the buildings have all of the classical-fascist bombast of the Albert Speer school.

Though the film’s designers produced a set of circular steps that recalls Art Deco curves in one inspired scene, the art department apparently ran out of money before they got to Preston’s car. His vehicle of choice through this retro-futuristic city appears to be nothing more than a white Buick LeSabre with the license tag and bumper stickers taken off.

But the biggest failure of imagination in this film is how it hews to the Cold War-era image of a repressive state coercing its citizens into conformity. The collapse of such real-life regimes over the last half-century have taught us that a successful dystopia will more likely be predicated on allowing people to express their individuality through consumption: a tattoo on every limb, a Vin Diesel flick in every DVD player.

The very unavoidability of Minority Report made it actually seem a part of the system it purported to critique. Its anti-authoritarianism, however sincerely intended, always seemed a bit suspect–particularly considering the Scientological leanings of its lead actor.

The humble (and, granted, flawed) nature of Equilibrium makes it a lot easier to bear. Movies about underdogs are always more convincing if they are underdogs themselves: The first Star Wars movie, the first Rocky and the first Babe were all underdog flicks.

So too is Equilibrium. Although it’s already well on its way to a video store purgatory, this earnest, scrappy mutt of a movie is worth the price of a theater ticket.

A $3.75 matinee ticket, that is. EndBlock