Conceptualizing the future in tangible terms tends to limit the supposed endless possibility of parameters, and this is most certainly evident in a growing number of cinematic deliberations on what a dystopic human global community would look like. While it suffers from feeling derivative in several aspects, the sci-fi parable Equals is a definite departure for indie director Drake Doremus, whose previous dramatic features (Like Crazy; Breathe In) could be subjected to comparable critiques of narrative familiarity. Competing at the 2015 Venice Film Festival, the project was plagued by mixed reviews, and not even a headlining Kristen Stewart was able to generate a bit of stateside box office warmth when US label A24 released this in the middle of July, 2016 (but foreign box office helped rake in over a million in ticket sales). Just prior to the film’s Blu-ray release, headlines about costume design plagiarism accusations have surfaced, which will be another aspect distracting audiences from a solid dystopic yarn in an otherwise serviceable, if visually sterilized depiction.
In the era following the end of the world as we know it, humankind has genetically eradicated mankind’s need to experience human emotion in order to survive. With violence and crime quelled, a new emotional disease has begun to strike down certain members of the high functioning and rigid society. Known as SOS, Switched On Syndrome is something that turns on these drone like people and makes them emotionally distraught. Silas (Nicholas Hoult), discovers he has recently become a victim of the disease, and those carrying it are able to stymy the progression by taking inhibitors—until they get to Stage 3, which sees them transported to an eerie place known as the DEN. But Silas notices a co-worker he longs for, Nia (Kristen Stewart), has been exhibiting signs of emotions, though she’s been able to hide it from the powers that be. Together, the two reluctantly explore growing feelings for one another. Until a cure is found for this mysterious syndrome, one that promises to eradicate all known cases of emotion. For good.
If the pod people of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, initially a metaphor exploring the nightmarish possibilities of Communism, were populating the Orwellian doublethink model of 1984 it might look kind of similar to Equals. Doremus and Parker aren’t as interested in exploring this universe’s full potential concerning the annihilation of emotion, in a world where scientists have coded our DNA with inhibitors to suppress them. Love is the drug, it seems, that ultimately overrides all, because you cannot fool Mother Nature. This hardwiring of the population similarly recalls one of Michael Winterbottom’s best films, Code 46 (2003), also featuring a love-struck couple found genetically incompatible, though their feelings dictate otherwise.
Doremus and Parker populate their mostly white universe (including the majority of the cast) with sterilized behaviors not far removed from most modern day office space professionals. But with such a broad set of parameters, Equals does tend to feel a bit underwhelming once its exposition is laid bare and the narrative wheels are in motion. Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart are both enjoyable as the film’s handsome couple, their plight rather similar to the one outlined in Like Crazy between Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones (had Doremus had more running time, perhaps we’d see a more emotional being usurping the attention of the male or female here). No time for sexual orientation to be broached or any other kind of differentiation, as apparently, like in nearly every dystopic situation put to film, heterosexuality is never in contention (it appears women are selected at random for conception here, so more than just emotions have been eradicated).
A strong supporting cast, including Guy Pearce (who appeared in Doremus’ 2013 Breathe In), Jackie Weaver, Kate Lyn Sheil, and Bel Powley (of this year’s Diary of a Teenage Girl) are all rather customary types we find in these scenarios. Doremus’ returning DoP John Gulesarian creates a striking palette of white shaded omnipotence, and the production seems enhanced by the simplicity of already existing structures (not unlike the subway system used in Verhoeven’s Total Recall, 1990). Surrounding foliage ultimately takes on an organically lush presence, as if the increasingly troubled humans will eventually be swallowed up.
Ultimately, Equals may not be as strong a feature as it could be, portraying the age old predicament of what happens when our base functions are repressed. But Doremus manages something a bit more intimate in this exploration of curiosity and the human compulsion for physical contact, defying genre expectations with a film often uniquely meditative.
Equals is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. The transfer is fine, but DP John Guleserian’s cinematography only exemplifies this as the more practical visualization of future social scenes bandied about in recent studio fare like The Giver or Lionsgate’s more notable derivative dystopic Divergent series. Doremus provides audio commentary for his first foray into Sci-Fi, as does Guleserian and Editor Jonathan Alberts. Three featurettes are also included on the release.
This eight minute featurette finds Doremus, and several cast and crew discussing how Equals is about a long term relationship and maintaining what is meaningful between two people.
In this thirteen minute segment, Hoult and Stewart discuss their role in assisting Doremus during filming and their impact on the crafting of the narrative.
This thirty minute segment discusses how the film was designed around the budget, with producer Ann Ruark and screenwriter Nathan Parker commenting on location scouting for landscapes matching the cost and look of the film.
Although Equals is not on the same accomplished level as the films or narratives it was inspired by and borrows heavily from, production values and performances (particularly from Stewart and Hoult) make this a better-than-average offering on the extreme possibilities of increased human detachment.
Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆