Are emotions necessary for living, or do they simply make living life harder? That’s the question at the center of Equals, the latest film from Drake Doremus (Like Crazy), a sci-fi love story that takes place in a society where emotions have been scientifically eradicated. It’s a familiar dystopian premise that takes little time coming to the conclusion that yes, yes they are necessary.
In the near future, humanity has created a perfectly functioning society by purging all emotions. Of course, behind the glimmer of the sleek white architecture, all is not well. Those that start to feel are pronounced sick from SOS – Switched On Syndrome, and given medication until they are too emotional to live with the rest of society, and brought to “The Den”, a containment facility, that sounds more like a prison than a hospital.
Nicholas Hoult (Mad Max: Fury Road) stars as Silas, an illustrator at a futuristic newspaper who contracts SOS and is drawn magnetically to his coworker Nia (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria), who he discovers is a “hider”, someone who’s contracted SOS but not sought treatment. Silas struggles to deal with his newfound emotions, finding solace in a secret support group run by Jonas (Guy Pearce, Memento) and Bess (Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook), a doctor at The Den. Things get more complicated when Silas and Nia strike up a relationship, what they call coupling, which is strictly forbidden, and it becomes clear that their only choice is to escape.
There’s nothing new about the ideas Equals is sifting through. The screenplay by Nathan Parker (Moon) owes a great deal to a number of other science fiction films; Equilibrium comes to mind. Speculative fiction has always been a forum to ask big questions and tackled complicated hypotheticals, but Equals is a fairly black and white film. The film posits a few arguments that emotions might not be worth having, but they feel like flimsy straw men, propped up to be knocked down.
Doremus and Parker would likely argue that Equals isn’t a film about ideas, it’s a love story. Hoult and Stewart give it their all, but the script is too stilted to wring much drama out of. Kristen Stewart acting in a movie where she’s asked to show no emotion feels like a softball joke from 2009, but this film shows how far she’s come as an actress, delivering a genuinely nuanced performance. Hoult continues to be one of the most interesting young actors working today, and it’s a shame the film gives them so little to do. The film becomes a victim of its own plot, crawling along at a glacial pace punctuated by fiery moments of PG-13 passion.
While the chess pieces move in predictable patterns, Doremus has crafted quite a beautiful board. Production designers Katie Byron and Tino Schaedler have filled the world of Equals with crisp clean lines and some of the coolest dynamic living spaces in recent sci-fi. There’s nothing particularly original about the aesthetic, but it’s a well-executed rendition of an age-old idea. Watching Equals, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve seen this whole thing before, and you probably have. It was probably just more compelling the first time around.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
Equals is a film that’s largely derivative of better science fiction stories. Its navigation of emotional politics is rudimentary and fails to ask any of the questions worth answering. Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart do a fine job, and cultivate a slow but powerful sense of chemistry that just can’t overcome the inertia of this cumbersome ship. At least it’s not difficult to look at. It’s just a shame that, in a genre where anything is possible, Equals gives us something we’ve seen before.