Imagine a post-apocalyptic world where efficiency rules and love, passion, empathy and essentially every kind of intense human emotion has been eliminated. Unfortunately for them, that’s where Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart cross paths in Drake Doremus’s new sci-fi romance Equals. The movie, which made its U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, is a quieter but still visually appealing take on the dystopian drama that’s dominated theaters in recent years.
Doremus has a way of bringing complex love stories to life on screen, as he proved with 2011’s Sundance-winning Like Crazy. But whereas Like Crazy was a grounded and genuine depiction of a complicated relationship, Equals focuses less on realism and instead works to bring those same themes into a hypothetical future.
In the movie, Silas (Hoult) and Nia (Stewart) both live and work in a sleek and modernized, tech-driven complex called The Collective. There, the members of highly controlled society work together as polite equals in the pursuit of productivity and social order. Distractions — like romance, sex, close friendship, or even too much general contact — are forbidden and residents are encouraged to report any suspicious behavior of that nature.
But as the Collective’s authorities continue to tout the benefits of an emotions-free existence, they can’t stop its members from getting infected with Switched On Syndrome, or SOS, a condition that causes a sudden onset of feelings. Though those in early stages can be treated with neutralizing pills, the condition usually progresses and those in later stages are treated with electroshock restraints in a harsh containment facility called the Den. If the emotions don’t subside, patients are encouraged to kill themselves.
When Silas is diagnosed with stage one, he initially seeks treatment. But he notices that Nia, his colleague at a science journal, also seems to be suppressing emotional responses. He soon discovers she’s a “hider,” who is keeping her symptoms under wraps and it’s not long before the two are falling in love, holding clandestine meetings at night. When their boss, Leonard (David Selby), uncovers their activity, Silas transfers to a new job to avoid incriminating Nia. But their separation proves too difficult to maintain and the two, with the help of other SOS sufferers (like Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver), soon plot an escape that could have potentially tragic consequences.
The story, conceived by Doremus and written by Nathan Parker, is one we’ve heard plenty of times before, essentially re-positioning a Romeo and Juliet-like coupling into a different time period and space. But Stewart and Hoult make the simplistic narrative appealing with their strong chemistry. Both actors excel at the kind of subtle performances this film requires, emoting powerfully with gestures and glances in place of all the words that their characters are not allowed to say.
Their performances are further bolstered by the movie’s striking visuals. As the characters warm to each other, so do the colors of their surrounding world — first the cold, white clinical feel of the Collective’s apartments, then the blue tint of the bathrooms where they meet in secret and so on and so forth. It’s a nice touch from Doremus, who again collaborated with director of photography John Guleserian on this film.
Fans of dystopian movies should take heed: This isn’t another The Hunger Games or Divergent, despite its young, popular stars. Equals moves at a much more languishing pace and placing emphases on feeling, not on action. Still, the back-to-basics futuristic love story is satisfying in its own way and should prove particularly so to those looking for a break from the genre’s usual high-stakes drama.
Equals hits theaters on July 15, and the film will also be available exclusively on DirecTV exclusively beginning on May 26.