From the moment you see the identical white jumpsuits and bland expressions, it’s immediately clear what kind of movie ‘Equals’ will be. Unfortunately, there aren’t many surprises from that point on.
The movie is pretty much a remake (or ripoff, depending on your point of view) of ‘THX 1138‘ with an added emo twist. It’s a bit dull and painfully predictable, but it’s at least painfully earnest and well made too. People clearly made the movie with passion, and for those viewers unfamiliar with this particular well-worn genre, it might even spark some intrigue. Not many viewers, but some. On the plus side, at least this is a copy of George Lucas’ least influential movie. That one doesn’t get ripped off every day like his others do.
The film opens with Silas (Nicholas Hoult) rising from an automated bed to put on one of several identical white uniforms before wandering out onto the street amongst a sea of similarly dispassionate and disinterested automatons. During his regimented and dull routine, there are whispers of a plague called S.O.S. (Switched On Syndrome), a disease that makes people feel icky things like emotions and independent thought, so obviously it needs to be stopped. Silas is pretty sure he doesn’t have it, though. That is, until he sees Nia (Kristen Stewart). The next thing you know, they’re sharing confusing glances and experiencing bubbling feelings that are a sure sign of the disease. Silas joins an S.O.S. support group run by Guy Pearce to help get over his condition. But maybe he likes these new and terrible feels. And wouldn’t ya know it, Nia feels the same way.
I know what you’re thinking… Eww, right? Well, you’re not wrong. This is big time heart-on-your-sleeve stuff from director/co-writer Drake Doremus (‘Like Crazy’) and he certainly doesn’t use subtlety to express his thoughts. If the term “Switched On Syndrome” doesn’t’ sounds annoyingly obvious enough, the drama and storytelling leave even less to the imagination. This is yet another movie about how cold and distant our society is, man. You know that love is the only escape, don’t you? That’s the one thing Big Brother can’t take from us, and that’s why those evil powers want to shut it down. These ideas may have seemed novel when Lucas trotted them out in ‘THX’, but they’re pretty tedious now. Fortunately, Doremus brings a sense of passion and warmth to the material that at least helps it play, even if it feels so redundant.
Hoult and Stewart are both perfectly cast. They’re talented actors who mope for a living, so they know how to seem quiet and contained before gradually opening up (but not too much). Their performances are carefully controlled and warm, with the stars keeping their usual ticks to a minimum. The visuals are also pretty remarkable. Although the sci-fi landscape is a standard combination of cold cement architecture and empty desks, that’s deliberate because Doremus’ style comes into play purely by visualizing the emotions of his awoken lovers. The expressive use of color and abstraction in framing can be quite gorgeous. Some of the best parts in the movie come from the moments of secret connection between the pair. That’s clearly Doremus’ focus, to show how love can provide meaning and momentum in a crushingly dull and controlled world. He does so well. He just overdoes it.
‘Equals’ probably would have been a great hour-long episode of an anthology series or a short film. At feature length, it feels a little overblown. This is ultimately a one-note movie, and even though that note is played well, there’s little variance. It’s all been seen before. That doesn’t mean the movie is horrible. In fact, I’m certain audiences who never encountered this type of sci-fi before might even be enamored by it. However, as an intimate sci-fi indie playing specifically to a genre fan base, it’ll all feel a little too familiar and predictable to be worth much thought beyond first impressions. Even though a great deal of thought and talent went into ‘Equals’, it’s a shame that there wasn’t much innovation to go with it.