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.
There are a bunch of other silly capitalized terms for things in this world, but they are secondary concerns to the crimes Equals inflicts on its talented cast. The first victim is Stewart, one of the finest actresses of her generation (who’s opening this film against a much better performance she gives in Café Society). Here she’s forced to dial back her carefully muted screen presence until she’s basically a ghost; the filmmakers have confused her style of performance inertia with something that is actually inert, and she spends several scenes flailing as a result. Then there’s Hoult, so lively and animated in Mad Max: Fury Road, now apparently auditioning to become another interchangeable hunky face alongside Ansel Elgort and the Hemsworth brothers. The supporting players fare even worse. Bel Powley, Jacki Weaver, and Guy Pearce all congregate along the edges of The Collective, communicating in monotone or, if they’re Hiders, one notch above monotone. The smart ones dream of escaping to a land outside this society’s walls where people interact with each other normally. We should all be so lucky.
There are some neat tricks in the film’s production design, particularly Silas’ living quarters, where little cubbies holding kitchens and bedrooms slide out from the bare white walls (always white; none more white). But even this aspect of Equals carries the distinct whiff of generics. Every element of the imagined universe seems lifted directly from Dana Schwartz’s parody Twitter feed @DystopianYA.
Director Drake Doremus, who also has story credit with screenwriter Nathan Parker, previously did fine work in the romance genre with Like Crazy, about a doomed cross-continental love story. Yet that film’s key strength, the way it relies on moments of tender sensory connection and raw performance to make up for a fairly large plot problem, doesn’t work on Equals — mainly because the junky concept actively prevents its performers from doing enough to distract from the story, and rendering this silliness in a deliberately obtuse manner (shadows!) doesn’t make it more artistic. The only emotion the film allows us to feel is boredom. Which, depending on who you ask, is either a feeling or the absence of one.