Earth-shaking passion butting up against overwhelming obstacles was the subject of Drake Doremus‘ 2011 Sundance grand jury prize winner Like Crazy. He returns to that theme in Equals, riffing more explicitly on Romeo and Juliet with a sci-fi romance set in an emotionally sterile future in which love, empathy, loyalty and every other intense human feeling except suspicion has been processed out of existence. For high-concept melodrama that’s low on complexity, this very solemn film takes itself way too seriously. But it’s not entirely without interest, thanks to sleek visuals and decent chemistry between alluring leads Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart.
Although she spends much of the early action wearing the impassive expression that’s been bred into the citizens of The Collective, when Stewart’s character, Nia, lets down her guard and falls for Hoult’s Silas, the actress gets to display the kind of raw feeling she’s mostly been keeping a lid on since Bella smoldered for Edward in The Twilight Saga. Perhaps surprisingly, given Doremus‘ indie pedigree and this film’s Venice competition launch, its most receptive audience might end up being swooning youths unfamiliar with superior adult sci-fi set in oppressive utopian futureworlds.
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Countless such films, ranging from Gattaca all the way back to the cheesy 1970s favorite Logan’s Run, come to mind here. Written by Nathan Parker (Moon) from an idea by Doremus, the story takes place in a highly controlled, crime- and hostility-free society formed after previous generations were wiped out by war. Human emotions have been genetically eradicated, and physical coupling is forbidden; procreation occurs only when women are summoned for artificially induced conception. The Collective is a society of “equals,” in which everybody is required to be a productive community member while also reporting on suspicious activity.
However, an epidemic of Switched On Syndrome, or SOS, has been infecting the citizenry. A debilitating condition that induces unpredictable sensory experiences and behavioral defects, the illness either triggers suicide or leads to neutralizing treatment and electroshock restraints in a grim containment facility called the Den, which might be worse than death. But as the soothing official voice of The Collective keeps promising in frequent announcements, “A cure is just around the corner.”
Silas and Nia are colleagues at a science journal where they work on massive tabletop interfaces, researching and documenting the world prior to the Great War. That includes a wild area known as the Peninsula, rumored to be populated by humans still ruled by emotions. Even before Silas is diagnosed with stage-one SOS, he notes twinges in Nia that suggest a failure to suppress emotional responses. When he confronts her about it, she denies having the disease. But it soon emerges that she’s a “hider,” managing to keep her symptoms under wraps.
Pretty soon the emotional outlaws are meeting in secret, melting to the unfamiliar sensation of a caress or a stolen kiss as Doremus drenches the clandestine scenes in ecclesiastical-sounding electronica by composers Dustin O’Halloran and Sascha Ring. When it appears that the lovers’ boss, Leonard (David Selby), is onto them, Silas transfers to a new job to avoid incriminating Nia. But separation proves unendurable.
Silas joins a support group for SOS sufferers that includes health and safety worker Jonas (Guy Pearce) and medic Bess (Jacki Weaver), another hider who remains undercover while working at the Den. In Shakespearean terms, these minor characters are Friar Lawrence and Juliet’s Nurse, and they help plot an escape that runs into potentially tragic complications.
Doremus‘ fascination with the star-crossed lovers theme was already wearing thin in his Like Crazy follow-up, Breathe In. Here, it acquires some added dimension from the meticulously detailed depiction of a robotic society in which everyone is under constant scrutiny, and in which love is such an alien feeling that its discovery becomes an even more intoxicating revelation. But almost everything in the increasingly predictable Equals feels bloodless and derivative, despite the pleasures of watching the very pretty leads, clad in stylish matching white uniforms, as they create heat in a chilly world.
That involves far too much dreamy whispering about the miracle of love, but the commitment and intensity of Hoult and Stewart keep you watching even in a film this bereft of subtext. Any hint of an AIDS allegory, for instance, is left unexplored. A little more of Pearce and Weaver, both underused, might have provided welcome expansion beyond the story’s limited scope. Likewise Silas and Nia’s hawk-eyed co-workers, with Bel Powley, Kate Lyn Sheil and Tom Stokes among those adding a quiet suggestion of malevolence. A note or two of humor wouldn’t have hurt either.
Cinematographer John Guleserian coats the action in ice-cool blues and grays and clinical whites, while production designers Tino Schaedler and Katie Byron give us a grand tour of some very cool architecture and minimalist-chic apartments. The good-looking film was chiefly shot in Japan, using several buildings designed by Tadao Ando, their spatial harmony, gentle curves and clean surfaces nestled among lush gardens. Looks great, but wouldn’t want to visit.
Production companies: Scott Free Productions, Route One Entertainment
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Kristen Stewart, Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hazlewood, Scott Lawrence, Kai Lennox, David Selby, Kate Lyn Sheil, Bel Powley, Tom Stokes
Director: Drake Doremus
Screenwriter: Nathan Parker
Producers: Michael Schaefer, Michael Pruss, Ann Ruark, Jay Stern, Chip Diggins
Executive producers: Ridley Scott, Russell Levine, Lee Jae Woo, Choi Pyung Ho
Director of photography: John Guleserian
Production designers: Tino Schaedler, Katie Byron
Costume designer: Abby O’Sullivan, Alana Morshead
Music: Dustin O’Halloran, Sascha Ring
Editor: Jonathan Alberts
Visual effects supervisor: Jake Braver
Casting: Courtney Sheinin, Nicole Daniels
Sales: Mister Smith Entertainment/UTA Independent Film Group
No rating, 101 minutes.