Equals is a progressive sci-fi development of Drake Doremus’ exploration of the love game, completing a trilogy of films about romance. Sundance winning Like Crazy, moved audiences as a girl and boy traverse the phases of love, from heart-pounding bubble of perfection to that moment when routine and distance draw lovers apart. The chemistry between the American director and his leading British actress worked wonders also in the 2013 follow-up Breathe In, with Felicity Jones interpretinga foreign exchange student arriving in a small upstate New York town and altering the relationships of the family hosting her.
In his third chapter on the intricacy of love, Doremus changes leading ladies but stays faithful to his cinematic Weltanschauung—inspired by a question producer Michael Pruss asked him: “What will love look like in the future? Do you think we could potentially evolve away from the thing that makes us most human?”
With this point of departure, Equals explores love, identity, and the human need for emotional fulfillment in a dystopic world. The screenplay by Nathan Parker, based on Doremus’ story idea, conquered Ridley Scott after he came onboard of the project as executive producer, and it should offer the same result for genre romantics.
The movie takes place in a futuristic world where emotions have been genetically suppressed, in an effort to protect society from the war and strife that has destroyed previous generations. On occasion, the suppression fails and emotions emerge in individuals – the Collective dubs this illness Switched On Syndrome, or SOS.
As society is increasingly threatened by this health crisis, all SOS sufferers are heavily medicated or sent to the Den, a corrective facility from which no one returns. Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult are Nia and Silas – the film’s star-crossed lovers who encounter each other as colleagues at the science journal, Atmos. As Silas begins to experience the onset of SOS and his own awakening emotions, he finds himself inextricably drawn to Nia, who is hiding her own SOS.
The longer they attempt to suppress their palpable connection, the more the tension fans the flames of their attraction. But with this newfound pleasure of intimacy, comes the threat of discovery and consignment to the Den. With the support of a group of like-minded SOS patients, they realize escape is their only option.
Location, location, location is a rule that does not apply to real estate alone; it’s also crucial for the art department when creating the ambiance of a film. All of the buildings in Equals are set in a lush environment and none are contextualized in a traditional cityscape; this provides a new type of a garden city where everything is embedded in nature.
The shooting took place in Japan, and the major influence to achieve a minimalist rational design was the work of architect Tadao Ando. During production, the team used a rear projection technique to create an imaginary landscape of a beautifully conceived elliptical city. This helped define the society that we were dealing with in Equals just as the white austere costumes that seem to come out of a Muji store. Everything in this world is optimized in its footprint. Also emotions.
Interiors play a vital role as another of the film’s components. Production Designer Tino Schaedler created an elegantly minimal white box to represent Silas’ room, as an allegory of his empty, organized, colorless soul. His studio apparently provides him with everything he needs. When Silas needs to sleep, a sleep pod emerges from the wall. When he decides to eat, a kitchen pod emerges. But it’s just an empty box that along the way will get things scattered here and there as the chaos of the love tourbillon has the better of him.
With these stylistic premises, Doremus magically paints on the cinematic canvas playing with light, shadows, warm colors versus cold colors, wide panoramic shots, and tight close-ups of face details and hand gestures. The slow-burning love story is enhanced by excellent performances of the lead actors who switch from being apathetically robotic to getting swept away by the Sturm und Drang of intense amorousness.
Kristen Stewart definitely overcomes the prejudice inflicted on her and other actors who started as youngsters with blockbuster fantasies. Daniel Radcliffe managed to remove his Harry Potter scar with the great performances in the movie Kill Your Darlings or on Broadway with The Cripple of Inishmaan; Emma Watson abandoned nerdy Hermione with The Perks of Being A Wallflower and The Bling Ring; Robert Pattinson confronted the light of day with Bel Ami and Cosmopolis.
In this same fashion, Kristen Stewart has proven to be more than just a pretty face, interpreting important roles in pictures such as On The Road, Still Alice, and ultimately Drake Doremus’ last oeuvre. The way she interprets Nia embraces all the nuances of a woman of any era, one that has to smother her thoughts and feelings because her context doesn’t allow her to express them. In the Middle Ages, women would have to keep mum to obey their spouses and in the world of Equals, it’s the surrounding society that imposes her to fake emotional numbness. But when she is alone with Silas we live with Nia every overwhelming instant of ardor.
One of the elements that makes the film so exceptional is the artistry of the visual effect, which evokes the experimental film genre as well as video-art. The story is simple: a revisiting of the Romeo & Juliet archetypes with minimal dialogue and a meticulous attention to the intangible. The minutiae that make us fall in love with someone by conquering our attention: a lip expression, a stolen exchange of glances, hands gently brushing together, souls sharing habits, sharing memories, sharing time, sharing responsiveness.
Doremus completes his love tryptic with a profound analysis of what it means to fall in love, to ride the wave, and how the changes of a relationship affect individuals, besides the couple.
At the end of the tumultuous journey you need to remember what you felt and why you were in that relationship in the first place. You may be over the person and not feel anything like the emotionless people in Equals’ society, or you may still be affected by the SOS bug. What matters is to acknowledge the changes and growth that derived from the relationship.