Packaged in familiar aesthetics and nodding to sci-fi greats, Equals finds love and subtle performances against the generic odds.

In a room filled with identically dressed people staring in one direction, a man, Silas (Nicholas Hoult, X-Men: Apocalypse), dares to look elsewhere. His eyes fall on a woman, Nia (Kristen Stewart, Café Society), who adheres to the masses while never appearing to fit in — and this moment, this not-quite-shared glance, is the type of scene from which on-screen love stories often blossom. Here, it occurs within a movie set in a post-war period where feelings like those on Silas’ face have been eradicated for the good of humanity. And yet, it’s not Equals’ science fiction premise and correspondingly chilly aesthetics that ensure this early exchange stands out; it’s the unrestrained emotion bubbling up in a recognisable situation.

Such pining gazes are a staple of film romances — and, though dressed in packaging purposefully reminiscent of the sparse, futuristic sci-fi ilk of THX 1138 and Gattaca, which also trifled with matters of the heart, Equals is a romance through and through. The sixth feature from Like Crazy and Breathe In writer/director Drake Doremus, this time collaborating with Moon screenwriter Nathan Parker, is also a simple effort that presents little more than would-be paramours trying to connect against the odds, and provides a testament to the power of love in the process. Indeed, with tested and forbidden amorous bonds prominent in the filmmaker’s preceding two works, it’s a subject he’s clearly fascinated with. Once more unpacking just how people drawn together react when they’re forced apart, it’s also the strongest aspect of his latest intriguing movie.

Silas is an illustrator; Nia is a writer; both are employed by Atmos Corporation, one sketching drawings for speculative nonfiction, the other scribing features. Others see their jobs as important; however, as soon as something more than professional courtesy flickers between them, it’s the sentiments they can’t supress that monopolise their attention. Within the collective that they live and work within, their condition is called Switched-On Syndrome (or SOS). If they can’t control or hide it, or choose not to, a shadowy fate of electric shocks and encouraged suicide awaits.

Among the compliant and unquestioning, Bel Powley (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and Kate Lyn Sheil (Kate Plays Christine) play dutiful workers; on the edges of society, Guy Pearce (Holding the Man) leads a support group for other SOS suffers, while Jacki Weaver (Goldstone) steals scenes as a veteran experienced at concealing her predicament. They impart texture on the periphery of the film’s narrative, but Equals belongs to its two leads. Painted as star-crossed lovers in a sci-fi approximation of Shakespeare’s famous pair, Hoult and Stewart sell the confusion, desire, suffering and joy that simmers within their struggling characters, often through silence. The latter’s much-probed penchant for internalised performances proves pivotal; in a world in which not only betraying but actually having inner yearnings is a punishable offence, she lets them brood below the surface.

It’s a nuanced turn, though elsewhere, Doremus prefers blatancy to subtlety. His regular cinematographer John Guleserian (TV’s Casual) luxuriates in grey, white and blue-tinted images that stress the clinical frostiness the protagonists are rebelling against, and looks on as longingly as the figures on screen. Accordingly, Equals always appears the part — and sounds it, via a standard yet effective score by Dustin O'Halloran (Lion) and Sascha Ring (Leopardi) — but it always remains generic too. Relaying a tale of human existence distilled down to blank-faced, detached conformity, the feature’s boilerplate nature almost feels fitting; reveling in a clandestine love attempting to survive against the odds, the burst of emotion Hoult and Stewart convey, in their own ways, does as well.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Director: Drake Doremus
USA, 2015, 101 mins

SciFi Film Festival
October 19 - 23

Sarah Ward

Wednesday 19 October, 2016

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay