In science fiction, the line separating a “utopian” existence from a “dystopian” one is often thin. A seemingly well-ordered world may hide dark secrets. The new 2016 film, Equals, is set in a futuristic society that seems perfect on the surface, but beneath the shiny high-rise buildings and perfume-ad aesthetics is a society that’s lost its humanity.
In Equals, society has stopped feeling. Individuals have their emotions switched off when they’re still in utero, and they reach adulthood without experiencing happiness or anger, love or hatred. The movie follows these emotion-free individuals as they go about their daily lives. They eat alone, they work alone, and they play virtual games alone. They rarely touch. However, this ossified existence is called into question when a young man and a young woman start to feel again.
The young people in question are played by Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult. Hoult plays Silas, an artist in a large corporation’s “speculative nonfiction” division. When his suppressed emotions begin to bubble to the surface, he begins to look at the world in a different way. He notices Nia (Kristen Stewart) trembling at the sight of a corpse, and he starts to wonder whether she too is afflicted with Switched-On Syndrome. Stewart and Hoult manage to generate chemistry, though their romance is more furtive than febrile. Stewart gives a small, internal performance, but her emotional awakening is visible in every shy smile and tilt of the head. Hoult, with his impenetrable handsomeness and icy blue eyes, looks right at home in the minimalist world of the film. His subtle performance anchors Equals, and he finds interesting notes to play within the film’s confined emotional spectrum.
Equals is directed by Drake Doremus, who previously helmed Breathe In and Like Crazy – movies that also explored the limits of young love. With Equals, however, he expands his scope, attempting to create a fully realized sci-fi world. The film’s set recalls Tokyo and the Guggenheim Museum, with a streamlined style that becomes almost dizzying. The clean, rigid cityscape is at once beautiful and frightening, stylish and clinical. Doremus chooses to use symmetrical compositions and a limited color palette to create a feeling of unease. The characters are trapped in the frame, breaking free in increments as their emotions return.
While Equals is an effective portrait of young love, the dystopian society at the heart of the film sometimes feels underdeveloped. The movie offers no explanation for this emotion-free existence, and it feels as though more thought was given to the set design than to the wider ramifications of a world without feelings. But if the film isn’t interested in political structures, perhaps that’s not a fault. The world of Equals may be brimming with untapped potential, but the film is decidedly, willfully small. It’s more about small gestures than sweeping societal problems. It chooses to be about two characters, rather than the society that surrounds them.
For sci-fi fans looking for action and excitement, this might be disappointing. Equals is a small-scale romance, and it may not satisfy people looking for thrilling set pieces or incisive critiques of dystopian societies. In scope, it is comparable to films like Safety Not Guaranteed and Her, which use sci-fi conceits as a backdrop rather than a focus. For people who want the sheen of futuristic sci-fi with a healthy dose of romance, however, Equals is a good option. Equals, which was produced by A24 and DirecTV, sometimes uses its dystopian setting as window dressing. But if it’s not as integral to the story as one might like, it’s still beautiful window dressing. This slickly made, well-acted romance is sure to please fans of the actors and the genre.
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