Film Review: Equals

In a dystopian society where everyone is bred to be emotionless, two people illegally fall in love and fight for their newfound emotional freedom. A dull, shallow sci-fi drama.
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Just when you wonder whether there is any stone left unturned in search of a fresh dystopian ill-fate for humankind, along comes writer-director Drake Doremus’ lifeless, humdrum Equals. But his imagining of humanity’s ominous future—where individuals are robbed of all emotion and forbidden to fall in love—isn’t exactly new per se, as George Lucas’ THX-1138 can be traced as an influence. With Equals, Doremus finds (or grants himself) another opportunity to stick to what he knows best and brews his story in the intimate pain of impossible love, as he did with Like Crazy (lovers separated by geography and visa status) and Breathe In (lovers separated by age and marital status). Intentional or not, what we have with Equals might just be the final chapter of his “unattainable love” trilogy, with two previous installments, while better, also generally devoid of insight and genuine feeling.

This is perhaps a bit severe a verdict, but not unjustifiable for a storyteller who repeatedly demonstrates his limitations in carving out a full-fledged love story—however doomed—with the kind of depth and complexity he is clearly after. Under his direction, extreme cravings of lust seem like insufferable pretense and supposedly loaded dialogue between lovers begs for a level of veracity. Equals is no exception.

The story is set in an undefined future and establishes a mind-numbingly minimalist universe with a bare-bones color palette, in which blank-faced, stern occupants form a very productive society that operates like clockwork. Working for what’s referred to as “The Collective”—an Orwellian structure with a Big Brother-esque control mechanism—members of this dystopian civilization all wear white, perform their highly technological jobs with unwavering efficiency, live in undressed compounds, and help themselves to gorgeously plated (but sparsely portioned) meals throughout the day.

As Doremus (who wrote the story for Nathan Parker’s screenplay) introduces further layers, we become aware of certain cracks in the cosmos that thematically fall somewhere between The Island and The Matrix. In this world and time period, people who “feel” are deemed diseased with a three-stage sickness called “Switched On Syndrome” (SOS) and are sent to “The Den” at the final stage, where they are encouraged to commit suicide. Infected with the (love)bug are Nia (Kristen Stewart) and Silas (Nicholas Hoult), who share stolen moments of intimacy with a burgeoning desire they initially don’t know what to do with. (A side note: Twilight fans will be happy to briefly observe Kristen Stewart—one of our finest young actresses—borrow mannerisms from her sex-starved days spent with a vampire.) In due course, the lovers do figure out how to physically express those feelings and decide to dodge their fate of receiving the newly discovered SOS cure by running away from The Collective. Receiving help from a rebel group with members who “feel” but choose to keep their condition a secret (called “Hiders”), Nia and Silas embark on a high-stakes escape plan.

Except Equals never allows you to fully take in those stakes or feel the danger of it all. Perhaps taking too many cues from the coldness of the society it depicts, the film consistently courts indifference to both its romance and suspense. While DP John Guleserian’s highly stylized compositions (which often isolate subjects on one corner of the screen and juxtapose their distress against an orderly background) deserve some praise, his efforts fail to expand the shallow, thinly drawn politics of the story. The most laughable and unfortunate of them all is probably the allegory of “Hiders”: Equals hijacks the tragic and painful LGBT struggle of living in the closet to create a cheap metaphor in its seemingly hetero-normative world.

Imagining a society drained of emotions, Doremus might just have taken it too far and erased any authentic feelings from his film. If you have never seen a sizzling romance flick before, Nia and Silas’ intolerably extended discovery of their thirst for each other might awaken something inside you. But as many will detect instantly, this movie is faking it.

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