Film review: Kristen Stewart stars in emotionless utopia with ‘Equals’
Equals has had an interesting reception. It was well received at some film festivals, nominated for the Golden Lion in Venice, and highly praised by many critics, but dismissed by others as slow and uninteresting. The acting was generally considered impressive, but the science fiction storyline disappointing. Its promotional schedule did nothing to help: after being shown at film festivals, the movie completely passed over theatrical release in some parts of the world, including the UK, where it will be released directly to the internet this month.
Part of the difficulty, I think, is that the film was promoted as a sci-fi drama about a dystopian future. Comparisons to 1984, and to dystopian dramas such as Gattaca, turned up in many reviews. However, Equals was never intended to be primarily science fiction. It is a love story, plain and simple, which uses a dystopian background to provide an unusual form of conflict for its star-crossed couple, and to offer their relationship a unique challenge.
Fans of director Drake Doremus are aware that love stories are his particular specialty. His best known film, Like Crazy, has his young lovers struggle with an enforced separation; while his 2013 drama Breathe In deals with an affectionate but conflicted married couple and their efforts to sustain the relationship. Equals, as Doremus himself stated more than once, is a love story first and foremost, in spite of the unfamiliar setting.The setting itself is admittedly distracting, an elaborate and carefully staged fictional world. Some time in the future, mankind has overcome increasingly dangerous conflicts by artificially eliminating all emotion. Without emotion or a natural sex drive, human beings live in a state of placid harmony. The society, known as The Collective, is not a typical, nightmarish future dictatorship: its people, although cool and affectless, are also considerate, interdependent people. They have retained an appreciation of beauty and an interest in scientific exploration, and the society does not seem oppressive; merely, and quite literally, without feeling.
The central character is Silas (Nicholas Hoult), an illustrator in a publishing house. Early in the film, Silas begins to experience strange symptoms; a doctor informs him he is suffering from a condition known as SOS or ‘Switched On Syndrome,’ in which the routine medical process which eliminates emotions is spontaneously reversed. His prospects are bleak, and involve permanent hospitalisation once his emotions can no longer be controlled with drugs.
Shortly after Silas’ diagnosis, he begins to notice subtle signs that a female colleague, Nia (Kristen Stewart), may be experiencing the syndrome. As he observes her, his curiosity develops into attraction. They ultimately begin a love affair, one which is illicit in their future society. The slow, awkward development of their emotional and physical relationship is the real story, and Doremus presents it with typical finesse, allowing the couple’s inexperience and naive amazement to set the tone.The calm, clinical tone taken by caregivers toward SOS patients, which at first comes across as the kind but detached approach of AIDS or cancer clinic staff, begin to take on a sinister feeling, as the official policy toward those with emotions threatens the young couple. Their meeting with others who hide their status adds philosophical speculation over the value of emotion, but adds little to the story and slows the action down considerably.
As Silas and Nia evade detection and look for a way out of their predicament, the sense of danger and desperation grows. The storyline becomes more intense, at one point borrowing from Romeo and Juliet, seeming to lead into a tragic conclusion, but instead ending on a surprising, curiously hopeful note which provides some observation on the nature of relationships in general.
As most critics have pointed out, the cast is the film’s strongest point. The two lead performances are particularly good, subtle and nuanced yet providing emotional impact, drawing the viewer’s empathy. The supporting cast, led by Jackie Weaver and Guy Pearce, are also impressive. The costume and set design help to establish the desired mood: buildings, clothing, and outdoor structures are nearly all in white or muted grey, and show us a society with a real aesthetic sense, but one which is dampened and restrained, perfectly expressing the personality of The Collective. The mostly classical soundtrack is also used effectively to set the mood as necessary.
Taken for what it is – a poignant love story using a futuristic setting as a plot device – Equals is an enjoyable and moving film with a sometimes weak plot but a great look and excellent performances.
For further viewing:
The co-writer of Equals, Nathan Parker, also co-wrote a genuine science fiction drama, Moon.
The reflective 2009 film, which features one of the most interesting computer characters since HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a dark suspense story full of surprising and shocking twists.