Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Drake Doremus
Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Kristen Stewart, Guy Pearce, Jackie Weaver
Released 3rd October 2016
When is a YA movie not a YA movie? When it’s not marketed as one. Which is exactly what’s happened with Drake Doremus’s ‘Equals’, a film that sticks to the recipe: a post-dystopian setting, an all-seeing dictatorship, a trait or act proclaimed illegal, a rebellious young person. They’re all there. But, unlike ‘Divergent’ or ‘The Hunger Games’, this isn’t based on a popular series of novels. Hence the marketing strategy.
The story is the creation of Doremus himself. And in this post-dystopian setting, known as The Collective, emotions and relationships have been banned. Anybody displaying signs of feelings is diagnosed as having SOS (Switched On Syndrome) and receives medical treatment. Among all the faceless young people in this world is Silas (Nicholas Hoult) who is diagnosed as being in the early stages of the “illness”, but also notices one of his colleagues, Nia (Kristen Stewart), seems to be experiencing them herself. And it brings the two closer together.
A post-dystopian love story, then, but one with echoes not just of the recent glut of young adult films. It only takes seconds for Orwell’s ‘1984’ to pop into your mind, alongside many other titles. But that isn’t the inherent issue with the film. The narrative would have made a good short story – and a good short film – but it’s been stretched to make a feature. And, although all the close-ups of Hoult and Stewart are attractive enough, they’re nothing more than visual padding for an idea with only enough for a half hour running time.
The film’s washed out palette is easy on the eye. Everybody wears light coloured or white androgynous clothes, interiors and buildings are all pale grey and tinted glass, everybody has deathly pale complexions and short hair. The only pop of colour is when Silas switches job to work in horticulture and the plants are a welcome sign of life. And when the couple have fallen in love, they view the world through a pale pink filter. Yes, really.
As a portrait of the single life, it’s extreme and unattractive. No smiles, no friends, even though everybody is exquisitely polite to each other. Solo apartments that could have come straight out of an Ikea catalogue, individual tables for lunch, walking alone. It’s all designed to prevent emotions coming to the surface. And, when they do, it’s not surprising that it gets to some people and they decide to find the nearest exit. Usually by jumping off the tallest building.
When a film is this derivative and limited in its narrative, the pressure is on the central characters to be credible and hold our attention. And, to a certain extent, we do buy into Silas and Nia’s love story. When they first make physical contact, there’s a real sense of tenderness and discovery but, for most of the time, the audience is as distant from them as the couple should be from each other. Their robotic and constantly watchful colleagues at work are also strangely unobservant, unable to spot that something has changed between the two. And they never twig that Stewart is having difficulty holding it together, even though it’s obvious right from the start. Those dark circles under her eyes are a complete giveaway.
The idea behind ‘Equals’ is decent enough, but has severe limitations and Doremus has done his own creation something of a disservice by trying to turn it into something bigger than it actually is. He’s been quoted as saying that the film is a metaphor for a long term relationship, in that sometimes when you’ve been in it for a long time, you forget why you’re there in the first place. You might feel the same about the film itself.