Emotions have been eradicated in the gleaming future world of Equals, which means we finally have a valid reason why the humans in a sci-fi movie look and act like robots. Yet somehow, this isn’t compelling enough a hook to stomach the sight of actors displaying only their narrowest possible range. Couldn’t the unseen overlords of The Collective — this film’s metallic, sleek hub for all the rule-followers clad in white — have allowed for the release of one or two emotions at a time (for good behavior)?
Equals is what the film industry calls high-concept — since its world operates within a clear what-if scenario — but the actual concept in which leads Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult are marooned isn’t any better than one of those games they play in acting studios. “And in this world, all emotions are outlawed: ready, go!”
Beyond serving as an opportunity for two pretty leads to fall in love and rebel against something without actually taking a stand, what’s the internal logic of The Collective’s feels-bleaching? Was it a necessary by-product of also curing cancer and the common cold, a way to make everyone work on their strange engineering projects more efficiently, or just future society’s logical response to the publication of the next John Green book? We’re left to surmise what’s going on by ourselves as Hoult’s Silas, gliding through his sterile, airport hangar-like society in his government job as a rocket designer, suddenly experiences spasms of dangerous, unregulated humanity.
The doctors diagnose Silas with “Switched-On Syndrome,” a disease name that signals we’re in one of those low-rent dystopias you pay for by the week. Apart from its acronym (SOS), which — like our protagonist’s name — is too obvious to even qualify as satire, the syndrome’s moniker infers that all the normal people in this world are, in fact, switched off. That may not have been the look The Collective’s PR team was going for.
SOS is supposedly fatal, although there’s little evidence beyond the fact that the people who are told they’re going to die often wind up committing suicide. The secret rebels call themselves “Hiders” because they hide their emotions from the government; there are sadly no bounty hunters called “Seekers.” Stewart’s Nia is a Hider, and she and Silas sneak furtive glances at one another in public before retreating into shadow (this movie loves shadow) to secretly, ecstatically feel the backs of each other’s necks.