In Equals, Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart) live harmoniously in a future society where emotions have been neutralized for the good of the community. Those who do accidentally feel something have “caught the bug” and are treated medically with the most extreme cases institutionalized. When Nia awakens Silas’ dormant sense of desire, they must hide their love, finally enlisting the help of others with the bug (Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver) to try to escape together.
Equals, written by Nathan Parker and directed by Drake Doremus, embraces the task of portraying a future world through design and there are admittedly some striking images at the beginning, but the film finds diminishing returns in the constant shots of the white, sterile atmosphere where futuristic is connoted by linear compositions of industrial Japanese architecture. Other than the stifling whiteness (which gives way to dark silhouettes in the love scenes), the most visually distinctive thing about this future is the creepy, angular way that everyone walks.
The premise of Equals essentially wipes the slate clean on romance – trying to portray the experience of falling in love for people who have absolutely no frame of reference for it. This is in some ways a radical departure from modern disenchantment, giving simple pleasures like holding hands more charge and subversive potency than they’ve had in America since the Puritan days. But it can also be profoundly silly, as you’re essentially watching the awkward fumbling of teenagers in the throes of a first crush, complete with overwrought declarations and zero sense of perspective. Even with characters that are denied emotion, perspective, and humor, the film could theoretically display these traits but does not.
As with many future-set post-crisis narratives, there’s a strange and morally troublesome psychology at work. Movies often ask us to identify with the persecuted - a noble impulse but one that’s been diluted to meaninglessness in attempts to garner sympathy without actually challenging the audience. In Equals, this dilution reaches its most absurd length yet - asking the audience to empathize with beautiful white people who are persecuted just for feeling. It wouldn’t feel so myopic if there was more depth to the world, but it seems this society has no other problems besides the feelings of Silas and Nia, not only illustrating a troubling narcissism that puts the emotions of the individual above all other concerns, but also showing that this dystopia was constructed with very little thought or creativity. With no new ideas to explore, the plot eventually sputters into a Romeo and Juliet-esque ironic ending, something of a cop-out to avoid any more emotionally complex terrain.
Equals is often well-executed and well-acted, but its fatal flaw is that it uses an original premise not to reach any original conclusions, but only to needlessly reaffirm banal romantic clichés.