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July 22, 2016

Drake Doremus has carved out an interesting little niche for himself as a director of romantic films. Not romantic comedies, but straight-up romances — a genre otherwise dominated by the sappy, saccharine juggernaut that is Nicholas Sparks. In Like Crazy and Breathe In, Doremus’ two films co-written with Ben York Jones, he manages to find the messiness in real-world love stories, and to celebrate it.

In Equals, though, he takes a different tack: a dystopian sci-fi romance. Thankfully it’s not an adaptation of some best-selling young-adult novel, which the studio would try to turn into another bloated franchise. This is an original story by Doremus, fleshed out into a script by Moon scribe Nathan Parker, but it does draw heavily from the usual tropes.

In particular, the core conceit is straight out of the ur-text of young-adult dystopias, The Giver: in this society, for the good of the social order, emotions have been eliminated. A slight twist here is that it’s largely medicalized. Everyone knows that emotions exist, but have been suppressed. They do sometimes surface — a condition known as “Switched-On Syndrome”, or S.O.S. — for which there are therapies to slow the eventual progress towards a total emotional breakdown.

Silas (Nicholas Hoult) notices the symptoms, and goes in for treatment like he’s been told. He returns to his workplace like a cancer patient, receiving both their sympathy and their ostracism. He also notices one of his colleagues, Nia (Kristen Stewart), displaying what look like emotional responses, but she hides her condition rather than getting a formal diagnosis. Can you blame her, seeing how Silas gets treated?

The two form a relationship, which is of course totally forbidden. Silas meets another S.O.S. patient named Jonas (Guy Pierce) who invites the couple into what amounts to a support group for people like them. At first it seems odd that the society doesn’t provide this sort of service, but then again what purpose does a support group serve besides an emotional one?

From here, though, there’s not a lot that can’t be predicted from other examples of this sort of dystopia. Their forbidden love turns into a Romeo-and-Juliet story, which seems too conventional for Doremus messy-humanity style. I still could have gotten behind it, though, if he didn’t pull the tragic punch.

Though the plot disappoints, Doremus does manage to nail one thing: the look. The Collective’s architecture is slightly colder and more modernist, but shows its clear inspiration in Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. Hoult, too, bears a strong resemblance to the young Ethan Hawke who starred in that film. Doremus shows, if nothing else, a real talent for this kind of style-mimicry.

But in mimicking the style of young-adult dystopias, Equals falls short in not pushing them at all beyond their already comfortable outlines. As a romance, it falls short in presenting the sort of unchallenging and uncomplicated story that Doremus has already proved he can improve on. Hoult and Stewart have real chemistry here; I just wish it had been in service of a better movie.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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