“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.”