The futuristic dystopia of the arty sci-fi romance Equals will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the likes of Gattaca, The Island or THX 1138. It’s a cool, rational, lifeless world, blanketed in whites and grays and blues, and peopled with unfeeling faces — a world whose citizens will express brief concern at the sight of a man jumping off a building to his death before calmly adding, “I hope they’ll find someone to cover his work.”
In other words, the mood may be mild, bland and emotionless, but the symbolism is blunt, obvious, ripe. After the opening shots of blank-faced worker bee Silas (Nicholas Hoult) waking up in his pristinely empty flat, his bed automatically retreating into the wall and his closet full of white suits rolling out by itself, I was pretty sure I got the message about this society of functional, unthinking vacuity — and the poor guy hadn’t even left home yet.
Ordinarily, such shorthand would be a good thing. But not if that’s all you have to offer. Equals spends a lot of time letting the signifiers of emotional desolation pile up. Video projections warn against Switched-On Syndrome (or SOS), an allegedly debilitating and supposedly fatal illness whose signs are hints of nervousness and the occasional unsanctioned feeling. Characters marvel at other societies’ odd behaviors. (“In my research, I found that they form social bonds with each other to alleviate something called … anxiety.”) Meals appear to consist mainly of those inescapable foodstuffs of oppressive blandness, iceberg lettuce and baby corn.
To put it another way: We’re ready for the escape plan, the flight to freedom. But Equals isn’t exactly a story of liberation. (Spoiler alert: Escape eventually does figure into the plot — but it seems like an afterthought.) Rather, Silas one day notices his colleague Nia (Kristen Stewart) displaying some signs of anxiousness, and soon becomes captivated by her — and she by him. Initially, it’s fun watching the two break through the vacant monotony of their surroundings through the subtlest exchanges — a stolen glance here, a hovering hand there. The mood particularly benefits Stewart, who dials down her restlessness so that each shrug, fidget and side glance reverberates. Meanwhile, Silas begins to show the signs of Stage 1 Switched-On Syndrome, finds a support group led by fellow SOSer Jonas (Guy Pearce) and tries to come to terms with what’s happening to him.
Director Drake Doremus has so fully invested in this stultifying milieu that I wonder if he hasn’t fallen a little in love with it. The world of Equals has a certain etherized beauty, true — with its eerie hush and its gray-blue backgrounds against which people occasionally pop orange. But we keep waiting for the love story to go somewhere, for the characters’ burgeoning awareness of their repression to result in … something. Anything, really.
And still the movie dithers in aestheticized reverie, with Doremus giving us longing, shaky close-ups against beds of plangent electronica, then giving us some more. Maybe he’s consciously denying us the satisfactions of genre — pointedly not letting his story go the way of Logan’s Run or The Giver. But he’s not exactly filling the void that’s left with anything revelatory, either. Doremus doesn’t even seem all that interested in taking us into the nooks and crannies of this not-so-strange and not-so-brave new world.
Still, there is an idea here, having to do with the way that love for another can puncture what seems like the endless blur of melancholy. But it remains a largely cerebral notion. After their romance becomes more physical, Nia asks Silas about his childhood: “What did you look like when you were little? Did you always have those freckles?” It makes for a nice contrast to the film’s icy, barren vacancy, but it feels more like a grace note — a brief, intimate respite — rather than a new direction. We’re left with an idea of passion instead of a real depiction of it. And a movie that can’t stop wallowing in its own emptiness.