Director: Drake Doremus
Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Kristen Stewart
2 (out of 5) Globes
The sci-fi indie “Equals” was made by and stars grown people, but it feels like it was written by a teenage burner who just discovered this book called “1984.” It’s not the first time someone’s ripped off George Orwell, but it is the first one to have this many feels. Indeed, it’s about a dystopia that bans feels as well as love. Its futuristic denizens are all blank zombies who eat salads for dinner, stare clinically at people who’ve just thrown themselves off buildings and, most chillingly, button their Communist-bland shirts all the way to the top. They even have an acronym for the “disease” that causes “sick” people to “suffer” from real human emotions: It’s called “SOS,” though a more appropriate name would have been “EMO.”
It’s easy to snicker at “Equals,” just as it’s easy to feel bad for snickering at something so earnest and fragile. And it’s very earnest and fragile, teeming with untold close-ups of wannabe-lovers holding hands and seeing how many “I love you”s they can cram into limited alone time. Nicholas Hoult is Silas, a youthful resident of an antiseptic hellscape where the only colors are blue and white. He knows that “couplers,” as they call couples, are punished by death. But he can’t help himself when, in the early throes of SOS, he finds himself unable to stop staring at — and sometimes flat-out stalking — Kristen Stewart’s Nia, a coworker he rightly suspects is a “hider.” That’s another of the film’s many cute terms, this one for someone who keeps their feels on the DL.
Their puppydog love is impossible, though not that impossible, since this totalitarian regime never thought to install an army of surveillance cameras. Silas and Nia like to nip out to a spacious bathroom bathed in blue light to touch fingers and talk about their feelings. Later they’ll hold hands while strolling to a clandestine group therapy session, where they can talk about their feelings with other “hiders” who also want to talk about their feelings.
“Equals”’ sincerity is unimpeachable, but it’s the actors who actually give it life, if only momentarily. The supporting cast is filled with overqualified actors (Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver) bringing real gravity to a story that could have been dreamt up in a high schooler’s basement cave. There’s also a bit of Kate Lyn Sheil, who, like Stewart, is forced to ditch her usual mumble-mouth to over enunciate her way through formal dialogue. Stewart is her now predictably excellent self, delivering feels you can believe, smoldering like a star and giving great close-up.
The camera loves Stewart, but director Drake Doremus — making his third, most abitious and least affecting tale of wounded love in a row, after “Like Crazy” and “Breathe In” — doesn’t always let us see her. Instead of giving us plenty of time to comb faces, he likes to dice up his scenes into montages set to sad ambient music, all while the viewer struggles to make out features obscured by orange lens flare. He uses montages with the recklessness of a kid who just discovered chocolate; at one point a tense situation is presented as endless shots of Hoult walking purposefully but appearing to go nowhere. Doremus likes to shoot and shoot and shoot, then find the film in post, but too often with “Equals” it feels like he’s burning the running time on shots that could have stood some pre-planning.
In turn he wastes his best assets. This wants to be a film that captures — to borrow an m.o. from a Gaspar Noe film — the feeling of falling in love, in this case for the first time. It wants to wrangle up all the confusing emotions that come with it, the ones that cloud the brain, short-circuit rational thinking and, on the other extreme, force naysayers like Gang of Four to pen lyrics like the ones for their down-with-love classic “Anthrax.” (“Love’ll get you like a case of anthrax/And that’s something I don’t want to catch”). It should be a reverse “The Lobster.” Instead all it does is force one to flash to that Oscar Wilde quip: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”