Familiar Science Fiction + Dull Romance 'Equals' Disappointment A new film imagines a dystopian future where feelings are forbidden — but never manages to generate an emotional response in the viewer.
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Familiar Science Fiction + Dull Romance 'Equals' Disappointment

Equals imagines a dystopian future where feelings are forbidden, but co-workers Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart) can't help it. Jessica Forde/A24 hide caption

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Jessica Forde/A24

Equals imagines a dystopian future where feelings are forbidden, but co-workers Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart) can't help it.

Jessica Forde/A24

Let's get the exposition dump out of the way first: In Drake Doremus' leaden sci-fi/romance Equals, an apocalyptic Great War has eradicated nearly all mankind and rendered 99.6% of the land uninhabitable. The surviving humans have colonized under the governing body called "The Collective," which has taken drastic steps to repopulate the species and eliminate the threat of another conflict wiping them out again. In this new, orderly dystopia, all human emotion has been "switched off" through fetal inhibitors that basically turn people into robots, productive and compliant servants of the greater good. (Forget sex, too. Conception is regulated through artificial insemination.)

So what about the folks who come down with an acute case of the feels? Those poor souls are diagnosed with "Switched On Syndrome" (SOS, if you're looking for clunky acronyms), an incurable condition that eventually lands them in "the den," where they're permanently confined and prodded. Constant surveillance makes it hard for anyone to get out of line, but there are a handful of people called "hiders" who can experience emotion, but are skilled enough at acting like dull automatons to pass themselves off as normal. In this seemingly infertile future-world, their tremulous emotions are like green shoots through cracks in the pavement.

There's plenty of sci-fi precedent for the Orwellian chill of Equals, but many of the particulara — the all-white color scheme, the emotional inhibitors, the outlawed sez — bring it in line with George Lucas' 1971 debut feature THX-1138. No matter. Doremus does not take the speculative elements of his film seriously, which is a relief, because they don't make any sense and they would have no thematic resonance even if they did. Doremus isn't making a statement about totalitarian governance or the surveillance state or anything else that might have some connection to the modern world or insight into the human condition.

What he's made is an old-fashioned love story dressed up as speculative science fiction, as if the future could conform to the strictures of turn-of-the-20th-century high society. Set in a time when emotions are suppressed and physical contact is forbidden, Equals is engineered to give a touch of the hand an erotic charge, to say nothing of more advanced forms of hanky-panky. And yet its own conceit works stubbornly against it: When two would-be lovers are required to behave like automatons every waking moment, it's not easy to stop being boring when no one is looking.

Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart) work together as an illustrator and writer, respectively, at the space department. It's a coveted gig — insofar as coveting anything is socially acceptable — but they go about their jobs quietly and efficiently, each working behind giant touchscreen monitors in the crisp white uniforms. When Silas starts to feel some emotional tremors, his doctor diagnoses him with SOS and prescribes inhibitors, but his newfound sensitivity leads him to suspect Nia is a hider and the two embark on a relationship that could land them both in the dreaded "den."

Equals opens up into an entire subculture of hiders, including ones played by Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver, who hold clandestine support meetings and plot strategies for living with the "disease." But Doremus and his screenwriter, Nathan Parker, haven't thought through their premise enough to make it seem like a plausible dystopia, because there's no one who benefits from this oppression and the acts required to sustain the system draw on feelings of hostility, suspicion, and paranoia. The more time they spend explicating this world, the less persuasive it becomes.

The heart of Equals, then, is the forbidden love between Silas and Nia, who do not yet have personalities to match their sudden fecundity of emotion. Since Twilight, Stewart has specialized in outré romance and bottled-up passion, to the point where a role like Nia is second nature. But the story is told through Silas' perspective and his evolution into a more rounded human being — he cries and forgets to shave — continues to register as stiffly as when he started. Equals wants to access an untapped wellspring of feeling — happiness, depression, fear, and love, all experienced for the first time — but it plumbs barren ground.