Filmmaker Drake Doremus makes films about impossible love; difficult, complicated, bruising, fragile love.
His latest, “Equals,” leaves behind the realistic contemporary environments of his two previous features, “Like Crazy” and “Breathe In,” for a sterile, dystopian future, but the emotional issues remain the same. Starring Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart as the star-crossed lovers, “Equals” is a riff on “Romeo & Juliet” by way of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
The film takes place after a world-ending war, within a tightly regulated society known as The Collective, where messy emotions have been genetically modified out of humans. That is, unless one catches feelings, known as “Switched on Syndrome,” or SOS for short, requiring immediate inhibiting treatment, and in worst case scenarios, containment and death.
This is a world of crisp white uniforms, perfectly modular neutral apartments for a single person and on-demand meals, where they speak about “anxiety” as a historical or foreign affliction. There is another community, known as The Peninsula, where humans live in “primitive” conditions, but the members of The Collective have their sights set firmly on outer space travel.
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Silas (Hoult), an illustrator, comes down with SOS, and the object of his newfound affections, Nia (Stewart), is one of his colleagues. She’s a “hider,” refusing to get tested, concealing her diagnosis from the sharp, watchful eyes and constant surveillance of symptoms that follows Silas. They fall in love, and the only way they can be in love is to run away, because the prevailing attitude about having feelings in this world is that they are a defect so great that suicide is one of the best options.
In some ways, this future is a logical evolution: Who hasn’t wanted to “switch off” the worst emotions in their lowest moments? But feelings here are an all-or-nothing game. You take the good, you take the bad, etc. It’s the same idea that Michel Gondry playfully explored in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” But “Equals” presents every moment with a deadly, fatal seriousness that threatens to sink the film with its own self-import.
It’s meticulously made, thoughtfully and carefully crafted. It could almost be a silent film, visually expressing all of the critical story information with a paucity of dialogue. All we need to know about The Collective is communicated through design and the ambient background noise of informational videos and announcements.
Against the white-gray palette of the environment, Doremus and cinematographer John Guleserian use lighting that vacillates in color temperature from icy to warm to express a thawing of numbed emotions, a slow escalation as love and lust awake from dormant genes. Woozy close-ups of Hoult and Stewart’s eyes and lips evoke the swooning gravitational pull of sensuality.
Hoult and Stewart are finely matched both in their androgynous beauty and in their performances of a repressed humanity, struggling against their own instincts. But as the film rounds the bend of the third act, the lulling spell of the style and design wears off. As intriguing a cultural allegory as it might be, this is a same old story, and Doremus (who takes story credit) and screenwriter Nathan Parker miss the landing, which falls flat. Ambiguity allows “Equals” to back away from its assertions, and with a compelling premise but no message, the film disappointingly says nothing at all.
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Kristen Stewart, Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Bel Powley
Director: Drake Doremus
Length: 101 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (thematic content, sensuality, partial nudity and disturbing images)