Any society that appears outwardly utopian is really just a nicely packaged dystopia. The orgiastic bacchanal of Logan’s Run was really just an ugly form of institutionalized ignorance and population control. Gattaca was a stylish eugenics wonderland that justified a rigid caste system. Even Plato’s ideal state in The Republic was a fascist, authoritarian, nationalist hellhole ruled by philosophers (specifically just Plato).
Equals draws many of its ideas and images from the utopian-dystopias of other movies. The world has a clean, sleek-yet-utilitarian look, like the Apple Store version of THX-1138. Everyone looks like a hipster in a glossy magazine ad or as if they’re verging on some sort of higher-end modeling deal. The stabilizing factor of this particular utopian-dystopia is the eradication of emotions–picture 2002’s Equilibrium without, for better or worse, the hokey gun katas.
[This review originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release.]
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Director: Drake Doremus
Release Date: July 15, 2016 (limited)
In order to maintain a tranquilized world, the characters of Equals avoid intimate contact with one another, living alone in apartments that are modular and compartmentalized to maximize space. Everything has a kind of mechanical efficiency, including the way people walk purposefully like automatons. We’re told of a wild outside world early in the film as Silas (Nicholas Hoult) works on images for a book of speculative non-fiction. He begins to show symptoms of emotions, which the world of the film refers to as “switched on syndrome” or SOS. High-level SOS is considered terminal.
Part of Silas’ SOS is rooted in his growing attraction to co-worker Nia (Kristen Stewart). Stewart’s withdrawn and wounded gaze suggests she may be going through the same surge of emotions. They give in to this growing desire, because if two centuries of dystopian literature has taught us anything, love, sex, and the basic biological imperatives of lust offer some private liberation–an act of rebellion, even– from the prisons that characters have imposed upon them. The world of Equals is a world of individuals kept apart but level through drugs and the trappings of an egalitarian society, which gives Silas and Nia’s trysts in a company bathroom an added charge. Being human: it’s messy, it’s clumsy, but it feels great sometimes.
Silas and Nia are essentially a pair of gaga-eyed teens, and they exchange the kind of first-love niceties you’d have with a high school boyfriend or girlfriend. Their words have an embarrassing earnestness to them, but it’s because the words hang between them, connect them, and bring them closer together. Their fear of getting caught leads them to a sympathetic band of SOS patients who can offer sympathy and maybe even a way out.
This all sounds a little too familiar, sure, and the clean aesthetic and cool-to-warm color scheme are predictable, albeit so competently often effectively executed. It’s the nature of the subject matter and the long history of tropes associated with dystopias; the same goes for science fiction about deadening or mastering human emotions. Director Drake Doremus and screenwriter Nathan Parker don’t bring much novelty to their future world, and yet I found something potent in the way Equals explored the stigmatization of depression, much of which is self-imposed.
When Silas’ co-workers discover he has SOS, they treat him as if he’s got an infectious disease. They isolate him so they won’t catch what he has, and he internalizes this aversion, which seems to increase his degree of SOS; isolation begetting isolation. People who conceal their undiagnosed SOS are called “hiders,” a not too subtle reference. Equals is something of a cutter narrative or teenage depression narrative with just a touch, however chintzy, of Romeo and Juliet. While the world Silas and Nia inhabit is superficially utopian but a dystopia within, characters with SOS are inwardly depressed or dysphoric but forced to hide beneath an even-keeled veneer. They’re the perfect kinds of citizens for this medicated hellscape.
It’s those little things that made Equals enjoyable. Its metaphor held solid while I acknowledge the elements surrounding it seemed shaky. If not shaky, then maybe too similar to things I’ve seen before. But again we have that outer/inner distinction that I’ve continually mentioned in this review. On the outside Equals is your standard-issue dystopian yarn with just a little bit of love for the misfit teenage set, but within there’s something different and more messily human than the surface suggests.