MOVIE REVIEW: Equals
Young writer-director Drake Doremus has carved out a reputable niche in the romantic drama department. Many of the Sundance darling's films, including his notable 2011 Grand Jury Prize winner "Like Crazy," feature a prominent theme of longing love. That motif is on full display and meshed with mindful science fiction in his new film "Equals." Starring Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart and backed by Ridley Scott, the film is making a limited theatrical run alongside a full release on VOD marketplaces. Mindful doesn’t exactly equal poignancy on the scale of desired response.
Set in an unspecified not-too-distant future in an unnamed Westernized nation, the planet experienced a great war of violence several decades ago. The remaining protected section of civilization lives within a sanitized urban palette of white wardrobes, holographic technology, and responsive touchscreens wrapped in glass, concrete, and stainless steel. Advancements in genetic engineering have eliminated major diseases and dampened human emotions. People are electronically monitored and slotted into careers suiting the specific needs of this calculated perfection. In essence, picture a bunch of would-be Vulcans living in The Container Store showroom and working in larger Apple stores.
One of those souls is Silas (Hoult), a young man who works as an illustrator for carefully curated news and historical records. He becomes keenly interested in the habits of a writing co-worker named Nia (Stewart). The community is in the midst of experiencing an uptick in “Switched-On Syndrome,” known as SOS. It is an ailment occurring in demarcated cautionary stages that become frowned-upon labels spoken of with suspicion and alarm. SOS is simply unchecked emotional responses and feelings coming out in public.
The unseen controlling leadership seeks to cure or contain it with treatment, medicine, and veiled oppression. Living in such emptiness begins to create room for dreams, unheard of anxiety, other sparks of dangerous stimuli for Silas and Nia. When they begin to develop feelings for each other, the two seek to find freedom through an underground support group, led by displaced citizens Jonas and Bess (Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver).
"Equals" is built on an intelligent and aesthetically pleasing foundation. Using genetic governance to fuel domineering societal control, the film possesses an intriguing high concept that offers a great deal of creative possibilities. An ambient musical score from German electronica artist Sascha Ring (stage name Apparet) and pianist/composer Dustin O’Halloran provides a simmering undertone to scenes. Striking Japanese locations construct sharp set design and art direction from Ian Bailie (“Reign of Fire,” “Atonement”) and previous Doremus collaborator Katie Byron. “Equals” shrewdly creates a cold future of sophistication with the masked uniformity of a flawed utopia.
The traits of intelligent and pleasing are not quite enough to be memorable, however. Playing like a poor man's "Gattaca" from Andrew Niccol, "Equals" lacks the heady importance and punch to elevate its position of substance. In a film centered on characters being overwhelmed by stirring emotions, that reaction does not transfer successfully to the audience. Simply put, we never crave the emerging desires the way they do.
Some of that lack of intensity falls on the two leads. In a pairing of the beautifully-and-constantly agape, Nicholas Hoult, the former “Warm Bodies zombie, knows his way around an idle stare or two. Well, so does Kristen Stewart, an actress who is a professional at making her own skin crawl in strained expressions with heavy internal anxiety in nearly every role she tackles. Her green eyes, signature lip bite, and clenched fists signal the underlying turmoil that work as the catalyst for Hoult. Both lovers shift well from vacant to frazzled to heated passion with all the conflicted feelings they can muster.
Unfortunately, the dulling narrative does not allow much stirring amplification. Foreboding sci-fi or not, neither Hoult nor Stewart are beacons of vibrancy where a little glow of such could have really helped. In addition, the weight of the silent rebellion versus a faceless opposition is played discouragingly light, giving Jacki Weaver and Guy Pearce too little to do with their immense potential talent. “Equals” is missing a visible antagonist target, be it a person or a presence. The film’s sluggish pace is a challenge without a lasting anchor of deeper introspection to best use its time.
For Drake Doremus to apply his talented heart of romantic drama to even the simplest level of science fiction, more heft is required. The film is missing a jolt of consequence. Science fiction is a genre that almost automatically demands stronger statements as to how the allegory of the story being told echoes as a parallel or cautionary tale to present society. Romance is an able conduit as long as it can heighten a greater relevance. "Equals" does not muster that boldness.
LESSON #1: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS UTOPIA—Entire worlds and societies can be created and even engineered with equality in mind, but that reality and goal is a delusion each and every time because people are physically, emotionally, and instinctively always going to be different. One size and one world doesn’t fit all and never will.
LESSON #2: LOVE IS THE ULTIMATE EMOTION-- Plenty of experiences and sensations titillate and evoke feelings. Embracing and understanding such reactions is a defining and intimate process. Of all the emotions, love is the one that makes a person explode, inside and out. Nothing awakens and fires up the whole range of possible neurons and synapses more.