August 26, 2016

Blu-Ray Review: EQUALS

Starring Nicholas Hoult, Kristen Stewart, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, Toby Huss, David Selby. Directed by Drake Doremus. (101 min, 2016).

The dystopia of Equals depicts a stark, sterile world whose inhabitants are prohibited from displaying any kind of emotion or affection. In other words, this is the kind of role Kristen Stewart was born to play.

That bit of snarkiness aside, the concept of the film is highly derivative of THX-1138 and 1984, while the tone and plot might remind some sci-fi fans of Gattaca and Logan's Run. Though certainly ambitious, Equals does not equal the films it's obviously inspired by, playing more like an homage than a springboard to jump into a new direction. We've seen this all before; two people finding love in a world where it is forbidden. In this case, it's between to co-workers, Silas (Nicholas Holt) and Nia (Stewart).
Kristen Stewart's happy face.

One interesting spin on the material is how this society depicts emotion and affection as a debilitating disease known as Switched on Syndrome. Like cancer, it comes in stages and doesn't appear to be curable, though treatments can slow the process. Still, most folks diagnosed with SOS either end up committing suicide or incarcerated in The Den (a prison-like asylum which is apparently worse than death).

After Silas is diagnosed with Stage 1, he becomes a pariah at work, though he notices subtle symptoms of SOS in Nia, who's been hiding her condition. Of course, the two end up falling in love, and their only course of action is to escape the city. Their plans go awry when Nia receives a conception summons (kind-of like coital jury duty), where they discover she's already pregnant and commit her to The Den. While Silas and a small group of others suffering from SOS (who obviously don't consider it a disease) try to break her out, an actual cure for SOS is discovered and everyone who's been diagnosed is required to get inoculated immediately.
Kristen Stewart's angry face.

Okay, so it's not the most original idea on Earth, which I don't begrudge. After all, Speed was simply Die Hard on a bus. However, this is the kind of stuff The Twilight Zone used to effortlessly pull-off in 25 minutes. Equals often moves at a snail's pace and is far more in love with its beautifully bleak setting (which is admittedly impressive) than its static characters. Spending 101 minutes with people nearly devoid of any expression or emotion becomes an endurance test. It's like dating someone who's drop-dead gorgeous, but they end up being slightly more fun than a tax audit.

That's not to say the performances aren't any good. Holt is actually very impressive in the ways he deals with his affliction while remaining outwardly normal. Believe it or not, he's actually better at appearing completely emotionless than Stewart (who's practically made a career out of it). Guy Pearce is also quite good in the few scenes he appears in.

Equals is well made for what it is, and it's obvious a lot of care was put into its concept, look and tone. But earnestness can only carry a film so far, and this one is just not compelling enough to sustain its ideas for very long. It also blows the obvious opportunity for a darkly ironic conclusion -  which might have even rescued the entire movie - with an out-of-place coda that negates the somber mood it worked so hard to establish.

Featurettes: "Switched On"; "The Collective"; "Utopia" (all are interesting behind-the-scenes features, the last one, covering the production design, being the longest).
Audio Commentare by Director Drake Doremus, Cinematographer John Guleserian and Editor Jonathan Alberts.
Digital Copy

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