Drake Doremus is clearly turned on by untenable attraction, whether it’s the long-distance relationship (“Like Crazy”), the adulterous (“Breathe In”) and, now, love in a dystopian future where people aren’t allowed to feel any emotion at all. And there you have a key problem with “Equals” – it feels as though the director is stretching for his theme.
We’ve had so many science fiction films in which society is controlled in one fascist way or another, whether “Logan’s Run," where people are killed when they reach 30, “Gattaca” (eugenics) or “Divergent” (extreme stereotyping), to name but three, that the premise of “Equals” feels terribly old hat.
That said, it’s one of the most beautifully designed films I’ve seen in ages, with a very effective romantic pairing.
After the granddaddy of all wars, it’s been decided that the only way to avoid another one is to genetically suppress mankind’s pesky emotions. In a pristine city of gleaming skyscrapers, everyone lives alone, speaks in monotone, performs their jobs efficiently, There’s no love, no sex; now and again a woman is told that she’s been selected for “conception duty," no man required.
If the genetic programming goes awry, the unfortunate individual is said to be suffering from Switched On Syndrome (SOS). These people generally kill themselves; if they don’t, it’s done for them.
Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart) work on a science magazine, he as an illustrator, she a writer. Silas has stage one of the bug, which means that he can suddenly taste his food, bursts into tears, and is increasingly attracted to Nia, who he suspects has SOS too, but isn’t telling.
Interestingly, Doremus and writer Nathan Parker don’t bother to flesh out the context beyond what I’ve outlined. There’s no evil supremo with a self-justifying philosophy, no cuddle detectors or love police, no utopian alternative. They’re simply concerned with whether Silas and Nia will survive their newfound love.
The film has been very well-located in Japan, notably in the minimalist, futuristic buildings by the great architect Tadao Ando. And production designers Tino Schaedler and Katie Byron create ingenious interiors that are at once beautiful and cold. Silas’s apartment is a treat, with everything gliding in and out of reach just as he needs it. Yet when a computerized voice informs him that he’s just solved 2224 puzzles (seemingly his only home entertainment), the tedium of his hermetic life is apparent.
While the design presents the sterility of this world, the actors do a lovely job of conveying just what it may be like to feel something for the first time. Hoult and Stewart give the simple acts of holding hands, touching, embracing a quivering ”first time” excitement, the pair overwhelmed by sensation long before they have sex.
And yet, alongside the déjà vu of the scenario, Doremus’s fidelity to its bland environment means that, inevitably, the film itself will become repetitive and tedious. A final flurry of will-they/won’t-they contrivance feels both misplaced and too late.
Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver play two characters doing a better job of keeping their feelings under wraps. How nice it would have been to see those two let off the leash.