Review: Kristen Stewart fights back against a world without emotion in ‘Equals’

“Equals,” which had its public premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in the middle of a mood-appropriately rainy Sunday, was written by Nathan Parker, who was also the credited screenwriter of the Duncan Jones film “Moon.” In this case, it's Drake Doremus bringing Parker's words to life, and like Jones, I think he's working at a different level than the writer. While I don't think Doremus was quite as successful as Jones, in both cases, I think the films work in spite of their scripts, not because of them.

If you haven't seen “Like Crazy,” you should. It's the best film Doremus has made so far, and it seem to encapsulate everything he does well. It's a pretty simple contemporary story with lovely performances from Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones. Since then, both of his lead actors have headed for deep space, Yelchin onboard the ongoing voyages of the Starship Enterprise and Jones as a rebel spy in the upcoming “Star Wars: Rogue One.” I would not have guessed, based on his earlier work, that Doremus was inclined towards science-fiction, but sure enough… here he is with the story of a society where emotion is not just illegal, but has been medically bred out of humanity.

Here's my issue with films like this. At this point, when you set up a society where (food/emotion/dancing/aging/love/farting/whatever you want) is illegal, then obviously your lead is going to discover the importance of (food/emotion/dancing/aging/love/farting/whatever you want) and then find themselves at odds against the society in some way, and most likely, at some point, they will be on the run. It's a super-familiar story structure at this point.

Sure enough, Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart), who both work for Atmos, a very powerful and important publishing company (I'm guessing, since the nature of their work is vaguely defined), are each wrestling with the onset of emotions. Within this world, it's known as “Switched On Syndrome,” which is an interesting use of language. Does that mean that society as a whole is okay with the notion that they are switched off? It implies that our natural state is being denied, and that we are consciously allowing ourselves to be switched off. It feels like the name a screenwriter would give to the syndrome, not the name the actual power establishment would give to it. Regardless, once Silas realizes what's happening to him, he begins treatment to try to keep the symptoms at bay. It's only once Nia confesses to him that she has also been feeling, and that she doesn't want to have it treated, that he really allows himself to feel.

Here's the good news: Drake Doremus is very good at getting the small details of falling in love right, and a big part of this movie is just about the way Silas and Nia begin to explore what it means to feel, and how they feel about each other. Both Hoult and Stewart are well-cast, and they both are very good at playing these placid, programmed humans who can't help but let these feelings bubble up and spill out. The first time they actually touch each other, they have almost no idea what they're doing, and Doremus lets the moment linger so we see every hesitant emotional spark that flies. In some ways, for Stewart, this is a perfect role. She always feels like she has some emotional war being waged under her skin that we only see hints of. It's one of the things that makes her worth watching, that strange electrical thing, like she's afraid that if she touches someone she'll explode, and Hoult makes a good match for her in that regard. Part of what makes him interesting is that he's become this tall pretty kid, but if you remember “About A Boy,” you know that he grew into it. He wasn't always naturally that person. He's always carried himself as if there's some central piece that is private, and it's rare for him to really cut loose in something. That's what made his work in “Mad Max: Fury Road” so interesting… Nux was a War Boy with the heart of a puppy, and Hoult's swagger and madness at the start of the film feels more like a defense mechanism, a character Nux plays because he has to, only to gradually reveal the broken little boy inside. Here, Silas has no idea how to handle his emotions because no one has ever given him even the slightest guidance in that regard.

By the time the choice is made to run, to leave behind this repressive society in favor of a place where they can be free, Parker's script has so clearly laid out where it's going that the last act's “big twists” are not twists at all. There is an inevitability that make it all feel like a bit of a drag because Doremus has chosen to give the film the same languid pulse as the inhabitants of the world. The film only truly comes alive in a few moments, but for the most part, there is a very dry, slow rhythm to it. Appropriate to the material? Perhaps. Engaging for a viewer? Not especially. Special mention must be made of the actual physical world of the film. It appears to have been largely shot on locations, and they have found some spectacular places that do feel otherworldly, lush jungle surrounding ultra-modern architectural mandalas. John Guleserian's photography is crisp and cold, and absolutely fitting for the story Doremus is telling. I like the details of the technology we see, but even so… it all still feels like the world is a Metaphor with a capital M and not a genuinely sustainable society. If I can't imagine people living daily lives for months or years or decades in the world, then I can't ever truly buy in, and “Equals” never convinces me that humanity would have voluntarily given up emotion for any reason. Someone mentions in passing that they've beaten cancer, so of course they'll cure S.O.S., but the line makes no sense. Cancer is a very real problem that kills people. Emotion is the filter through which we process our entire existence. One of them is a disease that we absolutely need to cure. The other is a natural state that is so inherent to who we are that there is no way to remove it from us without turning us into something that is no longer human, and there's nothing in this film that even hints at a crossroads where humanity would have made that choice.

If you can get past the witlessness of the world itself, there is some very good work in “Equals,” and fans of the cast will be no doubt pleased with the connection they have in some of the movie's best moments. Doremus continues to exhibit real chops as an artist, and I'm sure he'll bounce back from this with whatever's next. As a whole, though, this is somewhat inert, and Parker's script is more clever than honest, something that rarely works for me as a viewer.

“Equals” does not currently have US distribution set.