In Intriguing and Moving (If Also Derivative) “Equals,” Emotions Are the Enemy


Equals (Drake Doremus, 2015)

We’ve been here – a dystopian future where citizens are micromanaged by governments wary of an unruly populace – many times before, from literary classics like WeA Brave New World and 1984 (among others) to films like Logan’s RunTHX 1138 and 12 Monkeys (and so much more). It’s interesting how we so often choose to envision the future as a world where choice and free will have disappeared, given that the history of our species is one of a gradual move (though not for all) towards greater personal liberty, albeit in fits and starts. Certainly, thanks to certain politicians in this country right now, we may, at present, be closer to dystopia than before, and perhaps the fear of disaster is what keeps us properly on guard against fascism, but our fascination with a grim future – The Terminator being one of the bleakest such visions – is, itself, intriguing. We never seem to tire of it, though the details of our impending disaster may change.

Now comes director Drake Doremus (Breathe In) with another such meditation on the horrors that await us. Here, we are in an unnamed city where humans have all been purged of basic emotions. We’re not sure of time and place, and at first it almost looks like a hip version of our present, as main protagonist Silas (Nicholas Hoult, Mad Max: Fury Road) wakes up in what appears to be a sleek bachelor pad with sweeping views of an urban landscape. Soon, however, as he makes his way to work in the same crisp, white suit worn by everyone else, we sense the crushing weight of imposed conformity. Silas works as an illustrator at ATMOS, a corporation in some way devoted to space travel (though we never really learn the details), where he is surrounded by similarly dispassionate souls. Except for a young woman named Nia (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria), whose eyes shine with a feeling that awakens a similar response in Silas. Sure enough, he is soon diagnosed with SOS, or “Switched-on Syndrome,” which means he has only a limited amount of time before he is shipped off to “The Den,” where people with “Defective Emotional Neuropathy” go to die.

Beautifully shot and acted – indeed, Stewart, as the apostle of yearning for her generation, her face and body always vibrating with passion, is perfect as Nia – Equals is almost too minimalist in its construction to be much more than an exercise in design, performance and the intersection of the two. It also borrows heavily from the aesthetic and story of George Lucas’s aforementioned THX 1138. But as a movie about the yearning for connection that defines the human race, that no government control can fully eradicate, it is deeply affecting, nonetheless.

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