Nicholas Hoult goes back to the future after last year's Mad Max: Fury Road, but this dystopia couldn't be more different. The actor's latest, Equals, is set in an antiseptic world where emotions are outlawed and computer monitors are really big. Cancer is a thing of the past, but a new infection, called "Switched on Syndrome," or "SOS," can kill you instead. "The Bug" gets to Hoult and co-star Kristen Stewart. Their romance could get them killed—an engrossing setup—but the story ultimately doesn't fulfill its promise.
Co-written (with Nathan Parker) and directed by Drake Doremus (Breathe In), Equals is another stylish movie about forbidden romance. Known for his dialogue-less scripts, Doremus has always been a cerebral filmmaker. Equals is a bit of a departure for him since he's relying on someone else's words instead of his actors to organically realize his vision. But, improvised or not, the language of the film is merely a side-note. Doremus is more interested in capturing the emotions of moments and he uses music (and silence) to punctuate his scenes here, not words.
Equals isn't for everyone. It's slow and boring at times, but its languid pacing is a deliberate attempt to heighten the scenes between the film's two anarchists, Silas (Hoult) and Nia (Stewart), who are usually shot in silhouette when they manage to find some alone time. The camera moves in slow-motion, shots are out of focus, shapes are seen, not body parts. Doremus' film is made in the language of romance. He wants to seduce us.
In the beginning, Silas leads a life of routine with his buttoned up shirts and scheduled meals. North Korea-type bulletins inform him about the world and tells him what he needs to know. He works as an illustrator and he first notices Nia when he detects she might be thinking about things differently through her body language. After he has a full-blown nightmare, he's diagnosed positive for SOS. It's a death sentence and his pod-like co-workers immediately ostracize him. "Have you considered killing yourself?" One asks him without any hint of irony.
Nia, eventually overcome by Silas' longing stares, confesses she too is SOS positive, although undiagnosed, she just feels it. They fall for one another and start looking for supply closets to make out in. The melodrama is thick but everyone is so dedicated to this vision its hard not admire it on some level. The film looks beautiful, clean and icy, like the frozen ocean. The coldness doesn't just freeze us emotionally, but it adds a credibility to the dystopia.
Equals is full of old ideas about the moralistic struggle between peace and emotion. It's just not original enough to be this year's Ex Machina. What is a peaceful world if free will has been abolished? A Clockwork Orange may be the thematic reference point for Equals but it's moreso Romeo and Juliet. Above all, Doremus is most attracted to attraction. Sex conquers all and so on. Force people to feel nothing and they will feel something. Peace? Love? Pick one because you can't have both.