According to director Drake Doremus’s jejune Equals, our dystopian—and ostensibly near—future will be brought to us by our present-day’s plethora of feeling. Emotion, a catch-all term in a film averse to drawing subtle distinctions, was at the root of modern civilization’s destruction, from which arose a photogenic new world that suggests a real estate magnate’s fantasy vision of New York City where the only existing structures are the High Line, a botanical garden, and a few Trump Towers. For work, the denizens of this world research the Great War via massive tabletop screens that would have to be rigged given how little anyone seems to actually learn about the past—and for fun, the story’s emotionless automatons play with virtual, Jenga-like puzzles in their high-rise studios. Suicide, naturally, is commonplace.
Since watching Equals, I’ve kept coming back to its depiction of lunchtime, wherein individuals, though they appear to be allowed to speak to one another, sit alone for reasons that likely have to do with thwarting the potential for romance—a no-no in a world trying to combat persons ruled by emotions, a condition referred to as Switched On Syndrome. (The acronym for this disease, SOS, is just one of many cringing examples of the film’s superficial level of discourse.) As this is a society that encourages the suicide of those suffering from SOS, as murdering them would presumably force said society to confront the very emotional reflexes it seeks to suppress in the populace, you might wonder how meat so often lands on the plates offered to Nia (Kristen Stewart) and Silas (Nicholas Hoult).
Drake Doremus’s film all comes down, simplistically and repeatedly, to “feelings make us feel alive.”
Equals is concerned with how mind control asserts itself through the covert modification of everyday routines, but it doesn’t evince any interest in how its future world sustains itself. Apologists for this speculative fiction might argue that this world’s industrial infrastructure is beside the point—that the film’s purpose is to deliver onto us a cautionary tale about moral infrastructure. Maybe it’s not even meat on those plates. (Maybe it’s soy!) But if Doremus’s sense of world-building doesn’t extend beyond the suggestion of fascist control through fussily symmetrical compositions (life here is oppressive by virtue of resembling a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe house writ large), Nathan Parker’s screenplay is no less starved for detail. It all comes down, simplistically and repeatedly, to “feelings make us feel alive.”
Stewart and Hoult, both talented actors, are woefully locked into a monotonous performance mode by design of the film’s conceit. Nia is a “hider,” and after Silas senses that she has SOS, for trembling at the sight of a jumper’s corpse outside their work window, he starts to quiver whenever she’s around. First his feelings are unrequited, then not, and soon the full weight of their star-crossed love seems to be vicariously felt by their society. To take the heat off of them, Silas leaves for another job and away from Nia, but soon an actual cure for SOS is discovered, and its roll-out is so fierce as to suggest that Nia and Silas may not make it to the primitive world beyond their own before they will no longer feel a thing for one another.
Tellingly, the corridors of the film’s interiors bring to mind the Guggenheim Museum. Monastic in its whiteness, the museum’s design is such that it forces us to focus on its center, and it’s there that Matthew Barney once made himself the center of attention through a profusion of scandalous, lucid, absurd, but, above all else, colorful eccentricities rooted in his obsession with his own penis. Barney’s Cremaster films are reflections on super-maleness and sexist power. Minimalist by comparison, Equals plops Hoult, so clearly cast for the sculptural perfection of his face, at its center and merely rouses a queasily overwhelming feeling of unreachable whiteness. All that this trite regurgitation of Romeo and Juliet by way of THX 1138 has us ponder is the horror of a world where pretty white people aren’t allowed to smooch.