Finally, a cure for the incurable romantic. Drake Doremus‘ ‘Equals,‘ starring Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart and presumably sponsored by Tide White & Bright, is a film that might just make you hate love. Rather like being trapped on the set of “The Island” with a pair of obnoxiously lovesick naifs and only the “Equilibrium” script to distract you, its few saving graces are some decent shot-making, a rather great score and the loveliness of its lead actors’ faces. But while Hoult and Stewart as the star cross’d Silas and Nia are both as committed as they’ve ever been, it feels like they committed to a much better film: Nathan Parker‘s script, as outlined by Doremus, gives them nothing to work with save for some tired “Romeo and Juliet” beats and recycled “emotionless dystopia” cliches. It’s exactly as much fun as hanging out with a new couple who can’t stop making googoo eyes at each other, smug in the unshakeable belief that no one in the world has ever felt they way they do before. Yes, Nia and Silas are That Couple.
Coming rather seriously a cropper after two small, well-observed, sweet-natured love stories in Sundance-winning “Like Crazy” and “Breathe In,” it feels a little like Doremus has missed the point of what made his previous films appealing. A tendency toward preciousness, which those titles mostly avoided with the sincerity of their heartfelt attempts to wrestle with the idea of falling and staying in love despite the real world throwing its shit at you, is unwisely given full rein here. “Equals,” set in a futurist society in which emotions are genetically suppressed before birth, feels designed as a sort of petri dish in which he can zero in ever closer on the oh-so-transformative chemistry of romantic love in a clinical environment without all the messiness of real life distracting him.
Popular on IndieWire
But the messiness of real life is what gave those previous films whatever relevance they had: whether it’s long distance relationships or May-December extra-marital affairs, those swoony yet challenged romances had relatable stakes and obstacles. Here, Doremus and Parker have had to create a whole world from scratch, but there is no sense of it being a real place as opposed to a sterile thought experiment, and so the imagined society of “Equals” never adds up to more than a series of contrivances designed to keep our attractive twosome in a fraught state of forbiddenness.
What this does allow is for Doremus to extend to an almost unbearable degree the longing-looks-and-secret-glances phase of the relationship. Silas, apparently otherwise the model citizen, realizes that he has somehow manifested the mysterious ailment known as Switched On Syndrome. SOS is categorized as a terminal disease by their society (The Collective) as it causes people to start to feel, thereby making them “imperfect” and less functional as members of this robotic community.
Realizing that Nia has SOS too, but that she is pretending she doesn’t (she’s a “hider” in the parlance of the film) Silas falls for her, which we know because of a multitude of shallow-focus close ups of Stewart’s lashes, lips, hands, eyes. But due to some never-exactly-explained Other Reason “coupling” is also not allowed in this flawless world, and the punishment is to get sent to “The DEN” for corrective treatments so horrible that most of its inmates choose suicide instead. Despite all this, Nia’s defenses finally crumble and the two secretively fall madly, hotly (but oh-so-goddam-hesitantly) in love. Constantly under threat of exposure by colleagues (without feeling there is no friendship or loyalty either), Silas’ only outlet is a group of SOS-sufferers, led by Jonas (Guy Pearce) who meet in secret to talk about feeling feelings, and how that feels.
The brief group therapy scenes are actually among the most interesting that the film gives us. In her first brief monologue Jacki Weaver, as a DEN doctor who has been a hider for many years, injects a blast of life into this airless world, giving it a history and sense of its existence outside outside the frame that is sorely lacking elsewhere.
And it’s here we get the only real sense of the story as having any allegorical value, with the participants discussing the toll it takes to suppress your true nature almost like gay people revealing the pain of staying closeted. But it’s never developed beyond that, because Doremus is, like Nia and Silas, exclusively interested in Nia and Silas and in repeatedly bludgeoning home to us just how very, very, super special their love is. In fact, there are moments during their covert assignations which, depending on your mood and tolerance for such things, may have you redefining your idea of the ninth circle of hell to include “having to listen to two people who’ve never been in love before stumblingly describe their love to each other in breathy whispers.”
Sometimes there’s some nice framing; sometimes pulsating colored lights give a woozy look to things and allow otherwise staid conversations carried out in corridors to look silhouetted and pretty. Dustin O’Halloran and Sascha Ring/Apparat‘s score is so good that occasionally you can close your eyes and think you’re listening to a pretty decent ambient electronica album. And again, for the record, Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult are as good as they could possibly be in a film this wan, this involved in its own insistent winsomeness.
Stewart has a fanbase that will go see this film regardless, and maybe, if they haven’t seen too many of the better movies it resembles — like “Equilibrium,” “1984,” “Gattaca,” even the naff “Logan’s Run,” — the idea of a precious, outlaw love that the cruel world wants to suppress might be romantic and sexy enough to have them swoon right along with it. Maybe it’s one of those things, like very high-pitched noises, that only teenagers can be affected by. For those even a tiny bit more jaded or realist, the real wonder and marvel and breathless mystery of “Equals” may be that something so dazzlingly white can be so very dull. [C-]