Just prior to screening his newest film, Equals, at the Tribeca Film Festival, Drake Doremus told the audience that he was “not an intellectual filmmaker, but an emotional one,” and left us with this piece of advice for watching the movie: “Turn off your heads and turn on your hearts.”
This piece of advice is very telling of Doremus’ filmmaking philosophy, but is also a direct reference to the film’s dystopian premise. Equals takes place in a post-apocalyptic future in which emotions have been genetically suppressed, and the expression of these atavistic genes, called “Switched-On Syndrome,” is considered a terminal disease. Nicholas Hoult plays Silas, a young man who is diagnosed with the illness and discovers that his colleague, Nia (Kristen Stewart), is a “hider”: similarly afflicted but passing for a pod person. What follows is a wistful, angsty little romance, full of sweetly awkward kisses and lots of longing stares.
Although, as a critic, my first instinct is that the emotional aspects of a film should stand up to intellectual scrutiny, there’s no denying the value of keeping an open mind. So taking Doremus’ cue, I made a conscious effort to open my heart to Equals. And as a not-so-secret lover of almost all romantic movies (terrible ones as guilty pleasures, well-made ones as actual pleasures), I was the perfect candidate to love this movie in spite of itself. So I could forgive the fact that Equals’ mythology was simply a half-baked mixture of Equilibrium and The Giver, with a few sprinkles of Divergent. I could forgive the overt re-hashing of YA dystopian tropes, like the all-white outfits, the too-cute acronyms, and the eerily serene, Siri-esque robotic voice providing clunkily convenient exposition. I could even forgive the Romeo and Juliet third-act contrivance that only Shakespeare can really pull off, and the fact that the film doesn’t manage to say anything particularly new about the value of emotion over logic. After all, this is a movie to make you feel, so if it’s done that, then it’s done its job.
So it’s no surprise that the film is at its best when it minimizes the role of the derivative post-apocalyptic mythology and becomes one long close-up shot of the naturalistic and deeply felt performances from Stewart and Hoult. Silas was written specifically for Hoult, and he embodies the role with his typical intensity and sensitivity, but the subtleties of the Nia role are tailor-made for Stewart’s strengths as an actor. As Nia, her expression is consistently deadened in a studied way, but she differentiates herself from the characters who are truly dead inside by imbuing her expressive eyes with a tinge of loneliness. Nia comes across as enough of a blank slate that she can pass for an automaton, but betrays the tiniest bit of existential sadness, so subtle that only a person struggling with his own emotions would ever be able to recognize it.
True to Doremus’ word, every element of this film is designed to make the viewer feel. Between the unabashedly emotional performances, the rousing swell of the soundtrack, and the very deliberate use of color, Equals at its best becomes a kind of tone poem, a series of visually beautiful shots that evoke the innocent fear and disconcerting instability of falling in love for the first time.
But while I can conceivably overlook nitpicks that have little or nothing to do with the emotional core of the film, several glaring flaws in the script prevent Equals from reaching the gut-wrenching heights to which it aspired. Unlike Doremus’ previous film, the hyper-detailed, improvisational romance Like Crazy, Equals fails to imbue its characters with any specific personality traits (a particularly egregious oversight, considering the film’s humanistic message). At the beginning of the film, while their emotions are ostensibly suppressed, one would expect the characters to be generic (that is, after all, the point of vaguely communist government plots that inexplicably force everyone to wear white). But by the end of the film, the characterizations haven’t fared much better; one would be hard-pressed to describe either character with any descriptor aside from “in love.”
The few, feeble stabs at character development only serve to underscore this point; in one cringe-worthy scene, Silas and Nia ask “getting to know you” questions about the other’s childhood, and the best the writers can come up with is whether Silas always had freckles or whether Nia was tall compared to other kids in her class. These aren’t things post-coital people talk about in bed–these are things Edward and Bella talk about awkwardly after she wakes up to find him lurking in her bedroom doing his best serial-killer stare.
Which brings us to the real problem: Silas and Nia are never shown to experience the initial joy of falling in love. They never even laugh together. In a two-hour movie, there’s one soundless, context-less shot of the lovers laughing within a “falling in love” montage. The romance can’t earn the high-stakes angst of the film’s climax before we’ve seen the characters flirt and play with each other, before they’ve become relatable to us. Too often, “emotional” art is conflated with “sad” art, and while negative emotions are often the most potent, they’re not the only emotions, especially not when it comes to love (hopefully). If I’m going to turn off my head and open my heart for a film, I want that film to make me experience the full range of emotion, not just the tearful, aquamarine-tinged side of the spectrum.
For those of you who have seen the movie or don’t mind spoilers, I’ll leave you with one last thing: Equals ended exactly where it should have begun. I was entertained throughout the film, but I was never truly moved until Silas took the “cure” and looked at Nia like she was a stranger, telling her, “I remember being in love with you, but I don’t feel it anymore.” As long as we’re on the topic of the (somewhat specious) head-heart dichotomy, this line hit me where it hurt, but it also set off that penicillin lightbulb. That’s it, I thought, that’s what this movie is about. And funnily enough, Doremus agrees with me, as he said of that scene:
“This film for me is a metaphor for being in a long-term relationship, and knowing that you felt something, but not feeling the same thing anymore because the relationship has changed over time. And it’s about having to remember and fighting for this relationship, because it matters.”
That line is such an ace in the hole, it’s understandable that they would want to save it for the climax of the movie. But after an hour and a half of gauzy, blurred shots of Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart staring at each other, this potent theme only entered the movie in the final fifteen minutes. I would have loved to watch a movie in which the first hour of the movie took place within thirty minutes, and the rest of the movie was spent exploring the painfully sad terrain of searching for lost feelings. But instead, Equals was content to be a perfectly serviceable, somewhat derivative star-crossed romance. Not bad, but not nearly what it could have been.