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Equals Is Sleepy Selfsame Sci-Fi

By  · Published on July 21st, 2016

A promising cast is hamstrung by its emotionless premise.

In the world of Drake Doremus’s Equals, the future is bleak out of efficient emotional economics. Feelings cause problems, so they’ve been genetically stifled for the sake of utopia. This is no Hunger Games and no Divergent, though its protagonists feel more closely linked to the unintentional thinness of young adult fiction than the elegant broad strokes of Asimov.

Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart play coworkers whose names are almost lost in the constantly breathy dialogue (Silas and Nia), but whose attraction is obvious. In a society that prizes its inhabitants who have a mechanical work ethic and no desires but the continuation of the human race, interaction is secluded almost exclusively to staff meetings. All business. We hear over loudspeakers and on screens that emotions have broken loose in a select population like a viral outbreak. Emotions aren’t contagious – we think.

Hoult and Stewart perform their quiet often robotic roles admirably, though their world’s stiff gait never looks like anything less than C-3PO auditions. Tragic events pass before their eyes and while their peers remain apathetic, Nia is noticeably affected and Silas suffers from a nightmare.

Silas, afflicted with the early stages of emotions, understands that Nia may have them to and a romance develops. It’s an interesting premise with a giant hurdle to overcome: emotionless people are boring. The only interesting scene in the film is also its best directed and set-up by Silas’s lingered glances at Nia. What should feel like leering takes on a strange alien appreciation rather than anything like pubescent discovery of attraction. Ethereal camera movements, close-up on Stewart’s facial features, visually caress points of beauty as the sounds of the world drop away or fuzz into static.

This all culminates in the first scene where they get together, which isn’t an excited, fumbling virginal experience but a deeply repressed act of discovery. So deeply repressed, so neo-Victorian, that the camera captures the quivering intensity of a sex scene as the pair build up the intimacy to hug. After this striking restraint and tension, propelled by Stewart and Hoult’s complex chemistry of fingertips and naivete, the film loses itself to its world.

The pair’s inaudibly whispered closet meetings and the other struggles of hiding their romance are dramatically flat. We don’t understand this world’s consequences, especially when everything and everyone is so lackadaisically Laodicean. An emotionless world does not inspire an emotional story without a deft hand, and Doremus is often caught up in his own imagery.

Silas dabbles in pained, expressionistic art while Nia takes those showers that female characters take when they must wash away their feelings. Space exploration and escape come up over and over as solutions for introspective problems, explained in creaking platitudes by its newly enlightened (and emotioned) characters. The camera bounces along like an astronaut on a spacewalk, pulled by the gravity of its actors’ attractive faces while asking them to do nothing. Look over there, at all the vast nothingness.

The plot obstacles aren’t necessarily contrived as much as they are ineffectual. Moments we understand should be tense or exciting are served up blandly because of mistiming and tonal stagnation. Impactful moments are diluted with montage, the sequences drowning in its own detachment. The premise can’t escape its own narrative confines nor its sparse, superficial world.

They wear all white clothing because it’s the future and nobody stains their clothing in the future, despite still drinking coffee. The touchscreen tech is about as immersive as the decorations get – the rest of the props feel like art deco knickknacks from an Urban Outfitters with a glossy neon added in post-production. None of this would be bad if the film was comfortable in its small scale, but the action and repercussions that take place in the film beg us to imagine and experience larger and larger portions of this society. We’re still limited to the same monotonous, sometimes unfocused, close-up shots, tinted in the greys and blues that signify a dramatic indie movie.

Though its actors were understandably wooed by the challenging prospect of playing characters discovering feelings, they’ve been undone by their director. There’s a difference between restraint and oppressive apathy, which can just as easily manifest in a blank stare or a standard Hollywood sex scene with flying clothing and tasteful, above the waist cinematography. It can show up in a film’s star-crossed lovers, whose fate won’t surprise anyone with any inkling for Shakespearean foreshadowing. Despite its infrequent successes, Equals simply cripples itself with a premise it can’t escape.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).