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Review: Moody dystopian romance ‘Equals’ doesn’t measure up

Guy Pearce, left, and Nicholas Hoult in "Equals."
(Jessica Forde / A24)

“Equals” unfolds in a post-apocalyptic future in which a human remnant lives on as a rigidly controlled society called the Collective. The men and women here speak in flat, hushed voices, their faces blank and immune to the animating forces of anger, delight or surprise. The uniforms they wear are as white and sterile as their sleek, modernist apartments and offices — an aesthetic that not only reflects but literalizes the robotic emotional constriction of their lives, and of the listless science-fiction claptrap in which they find themselves hopelessly stuck.

Everyone here, frankly, looks a bit bored — which I suppose is the only reasonable response to a world where emotion is treated as an aberration, sex is forbidden and every lunch table is a single-seater. But perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that the future, at least in this incarnation, looks awfully familiar.

You’ve seen this brand of sterile, monochrome fascist compound before, in movies such as George Lucas’ “THX 1138” and Michael Bay’s “The Island,” which at least had the wisdom to spike the formula with motorbike chases, dead bodies and regular surges of adrenaline. “Equals,” directed with gauzy, low-wattage atmospherics by Drake Doremus, takes a determinedly less thrilling approach. The movie ostensibly tells the story of two people who fall in love and decide to break away, but any real escape from this dreary, anodyne world — and its opportunities for endlessly photogenic states of languor — seems to be the last thing on its mind.

The first of the lovers we meet is Silas (Nicholas Hoult), a handsome but otherwise unremarkable young man who works as an illustrator at Atmos, a firm whose purpose seems to be the research and documentation of worlds that exist beyond (or perhaps existed before) the present one. The precise nature of Silas’ work, which involves richly detailed drawings and elaborate touchscreens, is the most intriguing element of the film’s world-building, in part because it’s the least clearly explained.

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Almost everything else in the screenplay by Nathan Parker (who wrote “Moon,” Duncan Jones’ more successful exercise in minimalist sci-fi) is conveyed in terms that fall between the bluntly explicative and the ponderously symbolic. When Silas finds himself losing focus at work and experiencing his first stirrings of sadness, anxiety and desire, he is diagnosed with Switched-On Syndrome (SOS), a debilitating, presently incurable illness that might as well be called the human condition. There are sympathetic fellow sufferers on hand, like Jonas (Guy Pearce), to help walk him through what can still be a reasonably fulfilling and productive (if closely regimented) life.

Soon Silas learns that the Collective includes many “hiders,” individuals who have not disclosed that they have SOS. One of them, Bess (Jacki Weaver), works at an ominous medical facility called the Den, where late-stage SOS sufferers are brought in and systematically eliminated. Another is Nia (Kristen Stewart), one of Silas’ colleagues at Atmos, whose stray gestures — a quivering hand here, a moment of eye contact there — are all the evidence Silas needs to reach out to her, trusting almost instinctively that his intense feelings for her will prove reciprocal.

Incidentally, because it’s opening opposite Woody Allen’s “Café Society” in theaters, “Equals” is not the sole (or even the best) opportunity this week to see the kind of acting that Stewart is capable of doing. Long since liberated from the shackles of the “Twilight” series, if not the condescension of much of the mainstream moviegoing audience, she aces the tricky feat of seeming utterly plausible in a thoroughly implausible context, bringing a welcome infusion of heat and unpredictability to the proceedings. She also quietly establishes herself as not just Hoult’s equal but very much his superior in terms of screen presence and, eventually, dramatic agency.

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The film’s Orwellian pathos derives less from any particular romantic urgency than from the sheer improbability of two people forging any sort of connection in a world actively devoted to its suppression. Silas and Nia’s initial isolation from each other, and from everyone around them, is emphasized by the blurred edges and off-center framing of John Guleserian’s cinematography, and by the sense of dislocation achieved by Jonathan Alberts’ editing. There is a modest but genuine sense of release when the lovers begin to explore their desire, and finally abandon themselves to it — first in a closed-off stall in a unisex restroom, and later in Silas’ apartment, their longing looks and tender fumblings backed by the moody electronica of Sascha Ring and Dustin O’Halloran’s score.

For all that, “Equals” walls itself off from the suspense implicit in its scenario — it’s practically an anti-thriller — and barely flickers to life as a tale of forbidden desire. This is not the first time Doremus, best known for his contemporary-set romantic dramas “Like Crazy” (2011) and “Breathe In” (2013), has likened his characters to Romeo and Juliet, and certain myth-minded viewers may also discern shades of Eurydice and Orpheus hovering over the plot. But if so, they are surely wistful, disappointed spirits, likely underwhelmed by a story that seems less a critique of a world of cruelly limited imagination, finally, than an embodiment of it.

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‘Equals’

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MPAA rating: PG-13, for thematic content, sensuality, partial nudity and disturbing images

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood


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