Venice Film Review: ‘Equals’

EQUALS Kristin Stewart

Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult play citizens living in an emotion-free future who struggle to understand the attraction they feel for one another in this stylish if simplistic sci-fi romance.

Equals” director Drake Doremus has good news and bad news about the future. The bad news is that love, sex and anything to do with human emotion has been eradicated, which means it won’t be easy for Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart to follow through on the longing gazes they exchange from across their post-apocalyptic habitat. On the bright side, however, the fashion’s not bad (much classier than those high-waisted trousers the future folk wear in Spike Jonze’s “Her”) and the architecture is downright fantastic, so there’s plenty to satisfy the peepers, even above and beyond this conceptual romance’s already easy-on-the-eyes (and even easier-to-market) co-stars.

Younger-skewing than Doremus’ two first films, “Like Crazy” and “Breathe In,” this simplistic and over-obvious allegory of love — from the emotion’s hesitant origins to its potentially tragic fizzle — should resonate most with the arthouse-going segment of the “Twilight” fanbase, making this Stewart’s most commercial pic since wrapping that series. And yes, there is a certain amount of overlap between the two. To wit, “Equals” details the ice-melting effect the sullen Stewart can have on frozen-hearted young men and the reciprocal passion these pretty boys awaken in her, culminating in the long-awaited end to her virginity and its consequences — managing to do all that in one movie, rather than four.

Actually, the comparison “Equals” more immediately conjures is with Andrew Niccol’s “Gattaca,” that sleekly styled Ethan Hawke starrer in which members of a carefully monitored workforce contend with their own genetic limitations (certainly, the turnstile scanners, medical checks and killer cheekbones all check out). “Equals” was written by Nathan Parker, the man behind “Moon,” and it’s clear that he subscribes to the Niccol school of sci-fi, where everything is heavy-handed and obvious in order to privilege the pic’s central themes.

Here, Doremus’ principal obsession is once again love, but whereas his previous two films felt lived-in and realistic, “Equals” approaches the notion from a more hypothetical perspective: What would humanity be without it? Frankly, it’s a hard concept to accept, hinging on the idea that the citizens of a super-chic live-work complex called the Collective have been reduced to an idealized communist society of unsentimental beings, or Equals, “switched off” somewhere between conception and birth — which, incidentally, is a process that seems to have been relegated to test tubes and incubators.

Sex is forbidden. Mere contact is frowned upon. But the benefits of an emotion-free existence are enormous — or at least, that’s what the utopian community’s leaders, whoever they are (this isn’t the sort of film where Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster or Glenn Close gets to chew the scenery as the avaricious president-elect), want everyone to think. Just imagine all the work a society could get done if its citizens weren’t being distracted by the idea of sex every seven seconds.

Of course, we the audience can’t clear our heads so easily, and the mannequin-handsome Hoult and the typically inexpressive Stewart make an attractive couple indeed — especially when crowded into a tight, neon-lit room that is either a lavatory or some sort of closet. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: Hoult plays Silas, an artist in the Atmos corporation’s “speculative nonfiction” department. Stewart’s Nia spends her day dictating features. They’ve worked in the same office for years, but something seems to be changing in Silas’ disposition.

The Collective authorities describe this condition as “Switched-On Syndrome” (or SOS), meaning that those suppressed-at-birth emotions are somehow resurfacing in the “infected” person’s system. So preoccupied is the Collective’s Health and Safety department (recognizable by their blue-striped uniforms) with “the bug” that they spend most of the day delivering propaganda-style warnings like elementary-school bulletins over the loudspeakers, no doubt causing as much mental distraction as the sex thoughts might otherwise be. But they have to get all this sci-fi exposition across somehow. From the audience’s perspective, it would be easy to get caught up with the virus and what it says about our own AIDS-phobic culture, though that doesn’t seem to be Doremus’ point. (It’s a thin allegory at best, since rather than being venereally transmitted, SOS actually sparks sexual interest in those who catch it.)

So, all is meticulously clinical and white — from Silas’ Nehru suits to his minimalist apartment (whose slick, slide-out furniture looks efficient, but must surely double the square footage of his pad) — until Silas starts to pick up on signs of infection around him: basically, anything that doesn’t look stiff and robotic, from the tear he notices escaping a fellow citizen’s eye to the suicide victim who plummets right outside his window. But not until he starts to experience these feelings himself does Silas get concerned.

From Doremus’ side of things, it can’t be easy to depict something as subtle as “intermittent feeling” or “increased sensitivity,” though the helmer does a fine job of laying the groundwork for the attraction blooming between Silas and Nia — boosted by the resonant collection of electronic tones and chimes that constitute “Equals’” futuristic score. In time, the film will introduce other “Defects” (as those more sentimentally inclined members of society are called), including Australian actors Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver, who give two of the most subdued performances of their respective careers.

One of the film’s obvious challenges is the fact that the ensemble is given an extremely narrow range within which to emote, though as co-workers, Kate Lyn Sheil and Bel Powley manage to represent suspicion and concern, respectively, despite those limitations. As her fans already know, Stewart is a master of such subtlety, capable of conveying more with a loaded glance or her trademark hair touch than lesser thesps can with a full monologue. In Hoult’s case, he’s mastered this precise acting challenge once before in “Warm Bodies,” playing a zombie who slowly thaws to the idea of love.

You don’t have to be one of “Gattaca’s” rocket scientists to see where all of this is headed, though even such predictability has its pleasures for those who can shift their attention to the film’s gorgeous look — which benefits from a range of incredible exteriors (including Singapore’s Marina Barrage and Henderson Waves Bridge), cleverly cut together with several Japanese locations (such as the Miho Museum) to create the illusion of the ultra-modern Collective.

But those striking views wouldn’t move us in just anyone’s hands, and the partnership that makes “Equals” work isn’t just that of its stars, but director Doremus and longtime d.p. John Guleserian (who also lensed AFI classmate Doremus’ first two features). Bringing steadier-than-usual camerawork to this project, Guleserian allows the cool blue tint of the early scenes to warm alongside the characters’ emotional states, shooting in sensitive shallow focus to soften the potential harshness of these environments and foster identification with their feelings. These are important touches, considering how often similar versions of the future have been seen before, from “Logan’s Run” to “Brave New World.” Or better yet, “Sleeper,” in which Woody Allen summed up “Equals” in a single line when asked what he believes in: “Sex and death, two things that come once in a lifetime, but at least after death you’re not nauseous.”

Venice Film Review: 'Equals'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 4, 2015. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) Running time: 101 MIN.

Production

A Scott Free presentation and production, in association with Route One Entertainment, Union Investment Partners. (International sales: Mister Smith Entertainment, London.) Produced by Michael Schaeffer, Michael Pruss, Ann Ruark, Chip Diggins, Jay Stern. Executive producers, Ridley Scott, Russell Levine, Jared D. Underwood, Andrew C. Robinson, Phil Stephenson, Temple Williams. Co-producers, Anadil Hossain, Driss Benyaklef, Kim Seung Bum, Chris Lytton, Megan Hughes, Jake Braver, Georgina Pope.

Crew

Directed by Drake Doremus. Screenplay, Nathan Parker. Camera (color), John Guleserian; editor, Jonathan Alberts; music, Sascha Ring, Dustin O'Halloran; music supervisor, Tiffany Anders; production designers, Tino Schaedler, Katie Byron; supervising art director, Jason Hougaard; art directors, Ian Bailie, Kikuo Ohta; costume designers, Alana Morshead, Abby O'Sullivan; sound, Stephen Nelson; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Paul Hsu; visual effects supervisor, Jake Braver; visual effects, Method Studios, Base-FX, Brainstorm Digital, 4th Creative Party, Savage Visual Effects, Psyop; stunt coordinator, Tomoaki Kawasumi; associate producers, Samuel Y. Ha, Min Young Hong; assistant directors, Atilla Salih Yucer, Tanno Masato; casting, Courtney Bright, Nicole Daniels.

With

Kristen Stewart, Nicholas Hoult, Guy Pearce, Bel Powley, Jacki Weaver, Scott Lawrence, Toby Huss, Kate Lyn Sheil, David Selby.

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  1. Wagnerfilm says:

    This movie was pure drivel. I much appreciate intelligent sci-fi (not the robot-infested, star-battle variety), but this was not that, by any stretch of the imagination. Tarkovsky and Kubrick needn’t grow restless in their cinematic heaven. I also am growing increasingly tired of Kristen Stewart’s narrow range and acting mannerisms – perhaps she should slow down a bit and be more selective in her films, attempt a little stretching – the sullen pout is getting old.

  2. Mariana Gugelmeier says:

    Hi, I am a big fun of Russian literature, and this movie is an adaptation of one of the best books I’ve ever read in my life. The name is “We” by Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin. It’s obviously adapted for the screen and it changes a few things, but generally is the same story! However, the credits of the movie do not even mention it. Isn’t this plagiarism? I am very disappointed.

  3. ugly says:

    The movie made me feel like I was withdrawing 2 bills of 10 USD from an ATM exciting!!!

  4. Tara says:

    This is like the only positive thing I’ve read about this movie…

    • That’s probably because it’s too slow, subtle and contemplative for most ADD reviewers. Remember there were many who thought the shaky camera work in the first Hunger Games made them sick. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO! That’s the way Katniss perceived the first games in her fear and the way she felt.

  5. BrendaStar says:

    Except for category of best int’l film or documentary, all independent spirit film awards go to American productions. Clouds of Sils Maria is a French Production therefore its actors such as Kristen Stewart
    are or were not eligible for an Independent Film Award. This is made in reply to the person who belittled Stewart and Clouds of Sils Maria. You can google the eligibility rules btw.

    • James says:

      Camp X Ray and Still Alice were American productions and they were both snubbed by the Independent Spirit awards, too. Her peers in the LA film industry aren’t wild about her. You need to be somewhat popular to get nominated for awards, it’s not all about the acting.

      She embarrassed them as a community when she had an affair with her married director. Combine that with her lack of warmth, sullen expression, minimum range, and almost no giving back to the Hollywood community at large, and it adds up to the perfect storm of being passed over for awards in the US. The critics may give her films good reviews, but even they ignored her at award time.

      And the next time you want to reply to a comment, Brenda, do it where the comment was made, not at the top of the board. That’s obnoxious.

  6. Mary says:

    Stewart always plays a stoic character or a grungy character. I haven’t seen her play something completely different.

  7. BrendaStar says:

    Clouds of Sils Maria was not released in the USA until 2015. It only played at a lot of film festivals in 2014. It may not pick up any awards this year as it is old news but it does qualify for consideration this year. I am only writing this because I did not like reading comments that CoSM was a flop. Lots of artistic films don’t get good BO or gain BO only after being nominated for awards. Furthermore she does not play herself in every film. She was wonderful in many films including CampX-Ray! Actually she is probably great in Equals.

  8. Lana says:

    From the reviews I read of this movie, I think this review is right on the money since the reviews are all similar. Stop antagonizing the critic. If you don’t respect opinions then why bother reading the review in the first place. To those defending Stewart or the movie, be lucky that he liked the movie despite his issues with it and gave it a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

    • James says:

      No, all the reviews except this one are negative. Out of 7 on RT, this is the only positive one. The rest of them are all in agreement that the film is deadly dull.

      This reviews praises the sets and costumes and glosses over the tiredness of the premise and just how much the film drags. This review sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s like the critic went in determined to come out with a good review, regardless of how bad the film was. He talks about Stewart’s Twilight fanbase and marketing, rather than say how lame it is they used the same blue filter used in Twilight.

  9. WK says:

    I can’t believe these comments. Neither “side” (for lack of a better word) is doing itself any favors. Both come off as silly, petty, and immature, and your respective agendas are quite obvious.

  10. Alexander says:

    Director Doremus has more bad news about the future: Kristen Stewart is in it.

  11. LVMedia says:

    Is it always necessary to compare all of Stewart’s performances to Twilight, a film that was done 7 years ago? It would have been nice to hear an objective review from someone who obviously likes to listen to his own opinions.

    • Brooke says:

      She’s only known for Twilight, that’s why critics mention it. Better be known for that than SWATH, for which she got the worst reviews of her life, running around with her mouth constantly open and her accent that came and went from scene to scene.

      Twilight was a 5 film franchise, what do you expect them to use when they reference her? No one went to see On The Road or Sils Maria, they were both box office flops. Reviewers can be objective and reference Twilight at the same time, the two are not mutually exclusive. Her fans need to learn something about how to write and do less carping in the comments sections, you already have the worst online reputation in the world.

  12. rain says:

    Mr. Debruge’s ramblings make it rather challenging to determine if he liked the film but based on his comment – mannequin-handsome Hoult and typically inexpressive Stewart – Im guessing no. Mr. Debruge, it helps if you keep your eyes on the screen and then you could see Kristen being expressive in her movies…when you’re asleep or texting you kinda miss important details like that. plus, you may not have heard but she won the Cesar in France…first American woman ever to be given that honor. so I’m thinking she’s a lot better at expressing herself than you were writing this “review”.

    • Bill Krohn says:

      Three thumbs up to that.

      • Bill Krohn says:

        Let me add, if the website gives me time, that she and Robert Pattison both make hard choices and are terrific actors. He is given credit for it; she isn’t. Conclusion, anyone?

    • teletubby says:

      the cesar?????? lady who gives a sh*t about this award? it`s only for films of FRENCH DIRECTORS! so there is not even that much competition there…almost every country has those national awards. nothing to boast about…let`s talk again when she wins an international award with lots of competition.

    • RME says:

      omg, I’m so sick of hearing about that foreign award that no one in the US gives a crap about. It has no comparison to an Oscar, it’s only important in FRANCE. No one cares. She couldn’t even get an Independent Spirit award nomination in the US, her home country. She’s not well liked in the Hollywood film community, she’s a one trick pony and she plays with her hair and bites her lip in Equals, the same as she does in every other movie because she can’t create a distinct character to save her life.

      It’s not acting if you play yourself in every film. She’s not even in Jennifer Lawrence’s league, much less Cate Blanchett or even Jessica Chastain. This is a boring movie with two boring actors, all the reviews say the same thing, more or less.

      • peach says:

        @RME – “omg, I’m so sick of hearing about that foreign award that no one in the US gives a crap about.” – correction, you don’t care about the award but in the film industry, a Cesar is a big deal and the French are well known for awarding their own people and it is rare when they award it to someone who isn’t French as the only other American to win a Cesar is Adrien Brody and that was 12 years ago and probably will never award an American with that honour again.

        @teletubby – You obviously know nothing about the Cesar Awards in France which are open to any film that is either produced or co-produced by a French production company so there are many films outside France that could be eligible for it.

    • Nathan says:

      He goes on to praise both of the actors by the end of the review. Maybe try reading the review? He later explains that the characters aren’t written to have a lot of emotion as it’s part of the plot line. He’s not crazy about it but he thinks it’s an okay film with okay performances, which is also clear by his tweet as someone noted.

  13. Dale says:

    There’s so much style over substance in this confusing review, I can’t even tell if it’s positive or negative.

  14. sue says:

    Lol so did this critic like it or not?

    • EK says:

      Terrible, wordy and useless “review.” This guy loves the sound of his own keyboard and never manages to say in 10 words what he can in 20, while self-indulgently apparently proud of his verbosity. An editor’s nightmare.

      • Sideeyed Jane says:

        You also managed to say the same thing multiple times in two sentences: wordy, verbose, likes the clicking of his keyboard–you cannot be this ridiculous, can you?–self indulgent & proud . Guess what? They all mean the same dang thing in this context! Please take your own advice.

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