It is better, presumably, to decipher meaning like a game of hide and seek, to make the plot a puzzle to be solved, and for characters to be enigmas that need cracking. If this were a rule, it would leave little space for a pure, sacred and delicate film like Equals, which provides another subversive role for the Twilight star turned actress-auteur, Kristen Stewart.
Distinctive because it is bland, Equals has no disguises, pretensions or convolutions. Set in a futuristic world where emotions are a disease called SOS (Switched-on Syndrome), society is gender-neutral, there are no wars, and industry has been collectivized with currency eradicated. Silas (Nicholas Hoult), ostensibly a human-robot, clacks away on a computer at work, experiencing stirrings for a co-worker, Nia (Stewart), a “hider” –someone with SOS that can keep their emotions a secret. An unlawful romance spurts between the two. If found out, they would be sent to the DEN where those with SOS are euthanized or commit suicide.
Equals can’t be pigeonholed as quasi-YA, high-concept sci-fi or art-film, and although these labels are partially true, they aren’t entirely accurate either. The film is too minimalist for mass appeal, too simplistic for those looking for a mind-bender and too obvious for the “sophisticated” crowd. The film is reduced to its essence, to universals that transcend particulars. The main characters are archetypes who may as well have been named “Man” and “Woman”; their feelings are simple yet pure, child-like. The film’s world relies on pastiche and the associations we carry about these dystopian narratives. Exposition is half-heard over PSAs, computer-screen and megaphones in common areas. We have no sense who the governing body is or how it was set up: nuclear war, human (d)evolution or a mutual agreement among the people? What year is it? Where are we? What is Silas’ job?
Before it gives itself over to fluorescent effervescence, Equals is clinical in the Soderbergh-ian sense. Dislocating characters in space with shallow focus, off-kilter framing and an eye for architecture, the mise en scène in the first third effaces variety and personal expression. These first 30 minutes are the film’s best, naturally unfolding like a kind of futuristic social realism, attuned to everyday beats and slight alterations: how Silas notices the texture of water as it falls on him in the shower, how Nia’s lips butter up when she looks at Silas, how Silas expresses himself through abstract art when his feelings start to take over. Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult, both subtle, stoic actors, are attuned to these gestures. Hoult is dependable in his role but Stewart is luminous, hiding a range of feelings.
There are formal grace-notes, like a first kiss in a bathroom stall backlit by an ocean-blue, one of the first vibrant colors in the film’s palette. Nia and Silas are shrouded by a shadow, quivering as they lay their hands on each other for the first time. Scenes like this are exceptions as Equals inches toward the commercialized version of itself. Too often co-writer/director Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) relies on a synth score (with interpretations of Schubert, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven) and goes full-on music video. His expression of emotion is limited by his familiar form.
But how often does a film cast A-listers, pour a mid-size budget into a futuristic world and then climax with something as simple as two hands touching? Equals is powerful because it is elemental, speaking in a universal language that is easy to ignore but impossible to misunderstand. It is concerned with little gestures, exploding in tactile moments of touch. Though simple, it finds power in basic, human interactions. Equals hides in plain sight.