Find your equal.
Though the psychological community would rather leave Freud in the dustbin of history, his theories and ideas persist not because of their experimental validity (of which they have little) but because of their poetic force. Though we don’t know for certain that traumatic memories are repressed and then erupt in neurotic behavior, it <i>feels</i> right to say that the more we try to repress something, the more likely it is that it’ll come back and be stronger than ever. I say it feels right because so many stories have been told with that exact formula – some powerful emotion (usually romantic love) is repressed by some organization (the government is often involved, but frequently the Church is to blame) and then unsurprisingly the powerful emotion rears its head and things don’t usually end well. Equals is a riff on this familiar story, and it boasts a fine pedigree. Despite these checks in the win column, the film never quite finds its footing.
In the relatively near future, after some unnamed disaster causes the human life on Earth to rethink itself, we’ve built a society where emotions are completely repressed. Instead, people wander around in their white world trying to be useful and living by a strict set of rules. Silas (Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road) is an illustrator who helps produce propaganda to keep the population in line. Things are going well for him, until he starts to feel the effects of Switched On Syndrome. SOS basically means that he starts to feel emotions, a big no-no in the future. It also just so happens that his co-worker Nia (Kristen Stewart, The Clouds of Sils Maria) is also suffering from SOS. A predictable series of events cascade towards a bittersweet resolution.
There’s no denying the pedigree that comes with Equals. Director Drake Doremus has the romantic credentials after Like Crazy. Screenwriter Nathan Parker was responsible for Moon, one of the most inventive science-fiction films of the 21st century. If you’re going to cast a pair of actors to play lovers whose relationship blossoms in the midst of a repressive society, you couldn’t do better than Hoult and Stewart. Hoult showed how much he could do with very little dialogue in Mad Max: Fury Road, and Kristen Stewart has been quietly devastating for several years now. Just as impressively, the film conjures up an anti-septic, blindingly-white world of the future that feels all the more real for lacking a few crucial details. Rather than going overboard (like many recent films, especially in the sci-fi genre) in terms of explaining, Equals leaves a lot of the back story unexplained. This makes the world more compelling than it has a right to be.
The main problem with Equals is that it lacks one of two crucial elements. It either needs to be original, or have something to say. There’s nothing wrong with borrowing elements of other sci-fi tales to try something new. There’s riffs on other sci-fi films aplenty in Moon, for instance. But that film had something to say about loneliness and technology that we haven’t seen a million times before. Equals, however, retreads its story from too-many other “forbidden love” sci-fi stories, and it doesn’t have anything potent to add to the mix. The whole film ends up feeling like a reference to other, better films/stories. The basic plot is very 1984, but has been updated with a Gattaca feel. The futuristic designs are well-constructed, but there’s only so much that can be done with blinding white. And even the color scheme recalls efforts like THX 1138. That wouldn’t be a huge problem if the film had something to say, but it instead only hints at various threads it never develops. There’s tantalizing glimpses at the role of genetics in determining societal structure, as well as a decent “infection” metaphor. But those aren’t well-developed enough to give the film something to say other than “love will happen.” And since we’ve seen this story before, it’s hard to generate any tension.
At least the film gets a decent Blu-ray release. The film’s 1.85:1/1080p transfer is difficult to judge. It seems like the transfer is robust enough, but the film’s look has been so manipulated that it’s difficult to tell how well the director’s vision has been achieved. Detail is generally pretty strong, but in some of the scenes with lower contrast can disappear quickly. Colors are all over the place, with lots of bluish lighting set against white surroundings. That gives skin tones an odd cast, but for the most part it seems intentional. Black levels are okay, and there are no compression artifacts or noise. The film’s DTS-HD 5.1 master audio track is impressive in its minimalism. Dialogue is clean and clear, with the surrounds used appropriately for atmosphere. It’s not an overwhelming track, but it serves the ambience of the film.
Extras start with a commentary by Doremus, cinematographer John Guleserian and editor Jonathan Alberts. The trio are chatty and informative, though it’s not the most engaging track ever. We also get three featurettes that focus on the overall production, the cast, and the production design. An Ultraviolet Digital Copy is included as well.
I don’t want to make Equals sound like a bad film. Steward and Hoult have serious chemistry, and Doremus knows how to direct them. The set design is beautiful, and combined with the excellent cast makes the film easy to watch. It’s certainly not a chore to sit through. Sure, the film has nothing new to add to the world of forbidden sci-fi romances, but if you want to watching Kristen Stewart and/or Nicholaus Hoult smolder, then there are worse ways to spend your time. Fans of the actors, and those willing to overlook the films derivative nature will find a decent little romance film with sci-fi trappings. Add on a decent Blu-ray release and this one isn’t hard to recommend, even if I wish it were better.