On Equals, self-serving sentimentality, flaccid romance, and the difference between notions and ideas
Director: Drake Doremus
Screenplay: Nathan Parker
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Nicholas Hoult, Guy Pearce, David Selby, Jacki Weaver, Bel Powley and Kai Lennox
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 41 minutes / 1.85:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)
It's three o'clock in the morning, and the two young college students are doing young college student sorts of things. It's Saturday night - or Sunday morning, if you like - and this side of campus has mostly gone quiet. But these two are still up, sitting on the floor of their dorm room, and they have come to the point in the evening when it begins to feel natural to have some Deep Thoughts. The tragic frailties of the world have all of a sudden become so clear.
The two young college students light one up - one, and then another - and wax philosophical for what seems like hours.
What if, one of them postulates, there was a world with no emotions?
Like they weren't allowed?
Yeah ... like, what if having emotions was a crime?
No - a disease!
No - both.
OMG it's like way dystopian.
It's five o'clock in the morning, and the two young college students have just come up with a baller idea for a movie.
* * *
If this wasn't exactly the genesis for Equals, it might as well have been. Drake Doremus' attempt at dystopian romance is as tepid in its ambition as it is infantile in its conception. It's a cinematic manifestation of the kind of broad existential idea you have before your thoughts are fully formed, when you're nothing but romantic aches and vague impressions. It's a movie that hasn't wrapped its mind around anything it might be trying to say. Here we have a future civilization in which emotions are considered a terminal (but apparently non-communicable) illness, and acting on them is strictly outlawed. It's unclear whether humans have simply evolved past the necessity for emotions, or have systematically and deliberately eradicated their emotional impulses over time, a plan put into action by the powers that be in the name of some nebulous greater good.
Either way, what hurts the film is not the premise, per se, but the earnest attitude that propels it. There's nothing to say about this future except, simply, that emotions aren't allowed and oh isn't that awful. It's far from the first movie to take such a sentimental angle on a theoretically oppressive future. But this is miles and miles from, say, Alphaville, which also posited a society in which emotions (among other things) were illegal, but was couched in politics, genre and technology, addressing thought and individuality in ways Equals only glances at. It never had to (or even wanted to) rely on the kind of reductive melancholy that Equals offers. The technocratic architecture of its civilization was in and of itself an invasive, domineering presence, let alone the mores that came along with it.
Equals' more simplistic purpose boils down to "Wouldn't it be sad if we couldn't have the feels?" It has nothing to say about what the emotional freedom it's supposedly fighting for actually entails, or why it matters. In execution, it falls back on tried-and-true scenarios - groups of would-be rebels meeting in secret; a surveillance plot shortcut; subterfuge, escapes, chases - that the filmmakers seem deeply uninterested in. For that matter, Doremus shows no interest or curiosity at all about this future he's designed. This world is predictably sterilized - white on the inside, surrounded by endless greens outdoors; fully equipped with both the latest touch-screen technology and the tunnel from THX 1138 - right down to the obvious, hackneyed costume-design concept. Characters are dressed in largely indistinguishable whites and greys. Occasionally there's a beige in the mix. (The film's strongest piece of design is a variation of the white outfits, but with vertical black stripes in front that crisscross in the back. The few characters who wear that outfit are the real heroes here.)
The anonymity that the color and design uniformity offers makes logical sense; after all, bright splashes of color might run the risk of provoking buried emotional reactions in these evolved humans. The overall look is disappointing only because it's so instantly familiar. Too familiar. Before even getting the chance to justify itself, the costume design looks like a ripoff of something we can't quite put our finger on. Doremus counters the blankness of the production design's color scheme with some rich lighting choices - turquoise blues shining and acting on the characters rather than existing within their physical space - and his use of buds and flares of reflective light gives the film an alluring alien feel at times. But in the service of what? That feeling certainly isn't reflected in the story, a romance between Nia (Kristen Stewart) and Silas (Nicholas Hoult), both "afflicted" with an emotional awakening that overwhelms them. The romance is a frustrating one because the film hits a conceptual brick wall. While handling the larger forces at work with kid gloves, Doremus settles on a kind of lukewarm sentimentality as his overall objective. Look at these two sad attractive people who aren't allowed to be sad and attractive with each other. As usual with his work, there's an enduring, sometimes-irritating politeness to his romance, as he trades sexual tension for music-video melancholy.
The shame of it is that he has the perfect actress for this role. Stewart is not just a good fit but perhaps the fit. Her resistance to big displays of emotion is one of her defining (and most endearing) characteristics, both on-screen and as a public figure. Her trademark tics - her reticent yet poignantly naturalistic body language - reveal so much about her character's struggle to suppress what she's feeling. In terms of character type, Nia seems almost tailor-made for her. Except the film ultimately doesn't give her much to work with. There's nothing to Nia beyond the simple fact that she's feeling emotions she's not supposed to, and she knows the powers-that-be are eventually going to find out. Stewart does all the heavy lifting, creating as much of a character as she can out of little more than a loose outline.
In fact, for all his identifiable characteristics - the unhurried feel of the character interactions; the wistful glances between boy and girl; the loose rhythms of the editing - it also feels like he's refused to fully take ownership of the material. As if he only understands it in the abstract but lacks any interest in digging deeper.
His entire futuristic apparatus is a MacGuffin, and this is just another assembly-line forbidden love story. With Doremus, there's always one tragic external obstacle or another getting in the lovesick couple's way - geographical in Like Crazy; moral and logistical in Breathe In (with which Equals shares major structural similarities); and here, societal. Your love is illegal! Yet it has little to say about its specific time or place; little to say about anything, really. We get the conceit of a futuristic angle without the benefit of having that angle explored. (Hell, even The Lobster, which has a different premise altogether, managed to nail the suppressed-emotions angle without ever even saying so. Equals is built on that very angle and it can never figure out how to say it.)
The film's naive sentimentality only comes across as a flaw because it's practically the only coherent thing the movie has to offer. A fitting counterpoint would be Andrew Niccol's Gattaca, which is as unabashedly sentimental - pure triumph-of-the-human-spirit - as it can be. (And for that matter, it has its own variation of Equals' androgynous, plain-colored, monochromatic futuristic fashions, only its noir-inflected interpretations stand out and comment on the story in ways this movie's costumes does not. But I digress.) But its world and its characters are so full-bodied that it earns nearly every ounce of its romanticized disposition, whereas Equals' story is mostly self-serving.
The film's most promising idea is that the people in this society we spend most of our time with are basically cultural anthropologists; they write and illustrate histories of humanity, inflected of course with no emotional response to the stories they're telling. There's an obvious but potentially fruitful paradoxical juxtaposition in play there, but even that, it seems, is mostly left sitting there, as if no one really knows where to go with it. It's reminiscent of the way the Strangers in Dark City (another example of good sci-fi that's also nakedly sentimental) tried to discover how humanity worked, what made people tick and tock - pure information, divorced of emotion. Not unlike that film's ultimate ideological kiss-off ("You were looking in the wrong place"), Equals is clearly trying to be more heart than brain. But a little of the latter might have gone a long way. As it is, the film plays out like that first idea you jotted down in your idea notebook when you first thought you might want to tell stories for a living. You were 18. Equals is a movie that hasn't wrapped its mind around its own idea. It's a movie that simply needs to grow up.