Tribeca 2016 Review: Drake Doremus' "Equals" Is a Decent Romance, But a Derivative Dystopia
The indie sci-fi romance Equals has a perfectly serviceable romantic drama at its center, but falters every time it brings dystopian elements into the mix. While director Drake Doremus makes this movie an emotional experience, the tepid script lets down both the director and the amazing performances from stars Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart.
Director Drake Doremus is best known for the Felicity Jones/Anton Yelchin film "Like Crazy," a naturalistic modern-day romance that had very little scripted dialogue, but simply gave two talented young actors a chance to improvise and shine. "Equals" would have been a much better movie if he had taken a similar tack, because the chemistry and interplay between Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart is the best part of the movie. The movie is fine—although still a little generic—when it focuses on their burgeoning relationship, but the dystopian premise is incredibly flimsy and makes the movie worse every time it comes into play.
The premise of "Equals" is a familiar one: the evil government eradicates all emotion with some questionable "science," punishes anyone who steps out of line, and inexplicably makes everyone wear white. It's essentially a mixture of every YA dystopia you've ever seen, particularly The Giver and Divergent, but is somehow even less well-developed. The reasoning behind the government wanting to eliminate human emotion (and there are many plausible reasons) is never elucidated, their methods of control are pretty disturbing, but never explored enough to actually disturb the audience, and there are familiar tropes everywhere you look, from the overly cute acronyms to a Siri-like robotic voice clunkily explaining the mythology to the audience.
Doremus told the audience at Tribeca to "turn off their heads and turn on their hearts" while watching this movie, and the point is well-taken. Not every movie needs to be Citizen Kane, and not every dystopia needs to be Blade Runner. Some movies are just meant to take you on an emotional journey, and I would have been fine with it if Equals had taken a half-baked dystopian premise and simply used it as a platform for a Like Crazy-esque naturalistic romance. But there are two problems with that supposition: first, the climax of the movie wasn't driven by the internal journeys of the characters, but by external plot factors directly related to the sci-fi elements of the film, culminating in a familiar third-act twist that only Shakespeare could pull off. A plot-heavy climax only works if the world-building works, and it didn't.
But even more importantly, while the romance often worked as a result of the direction and performances, the script failed to individualize the characters or make their relationship distinctive enough to care about. At the beginning, the characters' emotions are suppressed, so one would expect that they would lack a personality, but both characters are revealed to have different levels of emotion within the first fifteen minutes or so. The entire rest of the movie could have been spent developing the characters and giving the audience a real understanding as to why they fall in love in the first place, not to mention the enormous ramifications of having emotions for the first time. But instead, we get a few unnecessary plot twists and a generic Romeo and Juliet-type "forbidden love." And while the original Romeo and Juliet weren't individualized very much as characters either, again, only Shakespeare can get away with that shit.
But all that being said, this movie is worth seeing for the performances alone. Hoult's character was written specifically for him, and he plays Silas with his typical intensity and charisma, giving the character's inability to deal with his newfound emotions much more weight than it's given in the script. But the real revelation here is Kristen Stewart, who is vastly under-appreciated after becoming known for that other-dumb-YA-romance-that-will-remain-nameless. Tasked with playing a woman who is burdened by emotion but whose life depends on continually denying herself an outlet, Stewart uses tiny gestures and her incredibly expressive eyes to portray Nia's profound loneliness and existential sadness. She almost single-handedly makes the relationship between Silas and Nia work, because her performance is subtle enough that her emotions would only be recognized by someone else who was struggling to contain them, but overall, the relationship, and the film as a whole, didn't quite live up to its potential.