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In the future, you don’t have to commit a crime to get ostracized from society—you just gotta feel like doing it. Because if you have that or any other kind of desire, you’re a defect, and you need medical attention.
That’s the way it goes down in Equals, the world dreamed up and directed by Drake Doremus (Like Crazy), fleshed out in a script by Nathan Parker (Moon). The title refers to the status of the people living in an emotionless utopia; they sleep, eat, and work, never bothered by the pesky urges we present-day humans have. Except when they are: In this reality, it’s called “switched-on syndrome,” and it develops in stages until you end up in a version of a mental ward and are encouraged to take your own life. Harsh way to kill the newly feelings’ buzz.
Many of this world’s inhabitants willingly go to the doctor to get diagnosed and treated when they first start feeling an emotional itch. But there are “hiders,” such as Nia (Kristen Stewart), whose tiny, out-of-the-ordinary gestures—clenched fists, quiet mumbling, hair-flipping (whoops, wrong movie)—catch the eye of Silas (Nicholas Hoult, X-Men: Apocalypse), whose attention she already had. Silas found himself in Stage 1 of this “debilitating condition” (Stage 4 is “acute behavior chaos”) and promptly sought treatment. But the pills he was given apparently weren’t strong enough to quash lust.
The idea of emotions crippling intelligence certainly isn’t a novel one—see: Spock—but watching a society of Spocks, with errant Captain Kirks, is intermittently fascinating in Doremus’ film. Unsurprisingly, this is a world of clean lines and white everythings, the epitome of efficiency and order. Colors are muted, though nighttime is lent a moody blue (except when Nia and Silas are together, when for some reason it turns a mean red). And yes, they do get together, finally able to relieve themselves of the burden of emotional and physical control, despite Nia’s initial recoils and laughable exclamations such as “I’m so scared!”
Equals’ biggest problem, though, is Hoult. Out of all the blank slates surrounding Nia, it’s difficult to understand why she fell for the blankest. Until they interact, all Silas does is stare at her; Stewart’s Nia, meanwhile, at least shows some emotional intelligence in her subtle side glances at various goings-on. Their heat isn’t allowed to go to 11—or maybe the actors just couldn’t take it there—leaving the overall film tepid until a late-chapter, sort of Romeo and Juliet development plays out. Meanwhile, Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver are tossed roles so small you’ll be shocked to recognize them.
Another story that Equals recalls is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: If you couldn’t be with the one you love, would you want to erase your memory of that person? Equals culminates with an open ending, presenting you with not only that question but another about the strength of love when everything in your system is trying to tamp it down. Thanks to Hoult, this forbidden couple has a human tamper, too, bringing down with him a film that might have been elevated to more than simply interesting.
Equals opens Friday at Angelika Pop-Up.