Our capacity for emotional depth and perception is critical to our humanity. In the new sci-fi drama Equals, deep feelings manifest only as part of a disease to be cured, and none but those classified as “mentally ill” are capable of sustaining emotions of sadness, happiness or (most dangerously) love. Ultimately, the film leads us to wonder: if we cannot emote, are we truly alive?
Equals stars Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult in the lead roles as lovers-to-be Nia and Silas. Directed by Drake Doremus and produced by an A24/DirecTV collaboration, the film shows us a future-world in which basic human feelings are genetically suppressed before a person is born. Any later resurgence of the ability to register any emotional sensations is classified as a form of insanity, or “switched-on syndrome (SOS).” The eradication of human emotions is politically driven, and intended to allow for a utopian world in which further global conflicts will be nonexistent in the absence of emotional triggers for such conflicts. Yet, as with most utopian ambitions, efforts lead to a dystopic reality in which the treatment for SOS is often so horrible that the afflicted choose suicide instead.
In the more general context of dystopian fiction and films, Equals contains themes reminiscent of those contained within The Giver, Gattaca, 1984, and Equilibrium. The suppression or elimination of emotions for political purposes and population control has been handled in some form or another as long as dystopian fiction has existed, but this doesn’t necessarily lessen the impact of such a theme. Rather it adds to the collective and ongoing debate of whether or not all humans feel in the same way and at the same intensity, and whether or not we can still be considered “human” rather than “machine” if we are bereft of an emotional soul.
In the case of Equals the minimalistic and monochromatic setting serves to emphasize the blurring of lines between man and automaton, with all inhabitants wearing the same type of white suits, sporting similar hairstyles, and living in sparse white quarters with furniture designed purely for function rather than style. Jobs are performed with machine-like efficiency as well, and any sign of deviation from the norm is seen as a flaw.
It is within this setting that Nia and Silas find themselves falling in love and then dealing with the confusion, uncertainty, and awe that comes with feeling such strong emotion for the first time. While it seems that Nia has been in a state of SOS for a while and has successfully been hiding it, the condition is new to Silas, as is the feeling of love for both of them. As such, the majority of the film is centered on exploring their burgeoning relationship and their reactions to it in a world that forbids it.
The film’s strengths include the chemistry and performances of Stewart and Hoult, as well as supporting characters Jonas and Bess, portrayed by Guy Pearce and Jackie Weaver respectively, who are part of an underground support group for others living with SOS and hiding it. However, the strength of the characters cannot completely eliminate the shortcomings within the story. For example, we are made aware that the ruling political force is “The Collective”, but we aren’t treated to specifics of what makes them so vaguely menacing. In addition, a place dubbed the peninsula is mentioned as an alternative destination for those wishing to live with their emotions, but it remains only an honorable mention within the story, never substantiated. Finally, there is potential for rebellion within the film, but this potential is never fully explored or realized.
Equals has been shown to limited audiences thus far, with mixed critical response. A wider release of this film is set for mid-July. While critical reviews have thus far been mixed, the film provides satisfying performances by its lead actors and serves to continue the cerebral debate of what it truly means to be alive. As such, it’s worth a viewing, if for no other reason than to exercise your right to form your own emotional conclusions about its merit.