Equals, a dystopic science fiction film, might have made more of an impact forty-five years ago, when The Future was truly a concept filmmakers were willing to explore. Back then, the twenty-first century seemed so far away, so full of possibility, and so indicative of whatever direction artists of the time felt we were going in. But now we are in the twenty-first century, and futuristic visions, both positive and negative, seem so passé. I suppose that’s why, generally speaking, the science fiction genre isn’t about ideas anymore; it’s more about action and special effects. In the case of Equals, it’s about giving a futuristic look to what is essentially a romantic melodrama.
Having just said all that, the film is engaging, decently cast, and well acted. It certainly evokes the style of the sci-fi films of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, including: The postmodern architecture consisting primarily of glass and concrete; the sterile surfaces; the stark lighting effects; the plain white costumes worn by every actor; the minimalist electronic score; the otherworldly sound effects. It even works in the consoles that everyone seems to be sitting behind and working at – although the many buttons and flashing lights have been replaced by elaborate touch screens, which, given today’s smartphones, actually do more to ground the film in reality.
Narratively, it borrows freely from several sci-fi films and concepts, from “Logan’s Run” to the “Star Trek” universe to “The Giver.” It has the most in common, however, with George Lucas’ “THX 1138”; both films take place in a time when emotions are forcibly suppressed by medications and love and sexual contact are forbidden. Even then, there are big differences; while Lucas abstractly examined a Orwellian consumerist society numbed by drugs – which, it can’t be denied, made it ahead of its time – “Equals” director Drake Doremus avoids message making, opting instead to tell a straightforward escapist love story.
At the center of the plot are Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart), who, I think, are assigned, along with a team, to creatively contribute to a historical archive. It’s mentioned in passing that, at some point in the past, a war ravaged the planet (whether or not it’s Earth, the film doesn’t say); those that survived restructured society so that emotions, love included, would be weeded out at the genetic level, and everyone would work together as equals in a collective. There are many people, however, for which the genetic altering didn’t take effect. At a certain stage of their lives, emotional states begin to cloud their minds. The physicians of this society treat it in much the same way as we would with Alzheimer’s; they’ve deemed the emerging of emotions an illness, which they call Switched On Syndrome, or SOS. At a certain level of advancement, an SOS sufferer is forcibly taken to a special area, where … well, use your imagination.
Silas begins to experience SOS symptoms not long after locking eyes with Nia – who, unbeknownst to anyone, has had the same symptoms for over a year. In due time, they give in to their emotional and physical urges in secret, all while the threat of an SOS cure looms over them. To describe the rest of the plot in detail would do you a disservice. Let it suffice to say that a plan of action is hatched, and if it’s to succeed, it will require the assistance of a sympathetic SOS sufferer named Jonas (Guy Pearce) and a physician (Jacki Weaver), who has functioned for years without letting on her own struggle with the disease.
This is all very entertaining. It’s not especially compelling, however. The dystopic sci-fi films of the past served primarily as warnings to audiences of the time; if things continue the way they are, they were told, this could be where you end up. For the most part, such predictions were either wrong or would only partially come to fruition. For us now, in the year 2016, there are plenty of possible future outcomes that are truly frightening, global warming being on the top of that list. The scenario presented in Equals doesn’t come off as something we should be afraid of, simply because it isn’t plausible. Society has its issues, God knows, but I just can’t envision a point at which we’ll be unwillingly stripped of our capacity for feeling.