This is a guest review by regular contributor Maria Rachel.
Dystopian expression has always been a reaction to what an author, or artist finds troubling in his or her own era. In books like Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, movies like Soylent Green with Charlton Heston, or The Ultimate Warrior with Yul Brynner, and even short stories as aged as The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, the objective is presenting a philosophical warning to readers and watchers.
Equals is an ultra-modern film produced by A24 and DirecTV that attempts to continue this classic dystopian model. Iconic pieces from the past spend a great deal of time describing the impetus behind the creation of utopias-gone-wrong. They reveal much regarding the necessary human longings, characteristics, and natural drives that are snuffed, thereby resulting in an unsustainable society. Equals assumes that from present society’s exposure to the themes posited and explored in previous dystopian works, a future reflecting an evolved “tech culture” is likely.
The movie does a wonderful job taking present-day fears of impersonality, the loss of physical human connection, and the Vulcan-like trait of conquering life with logic and order, instead of experience and wonder, to the extreme. The underlying fear in Equals is the compartmentalization of every facet of existence due to the over-reliance on, and gradual approval of, technology determining the course of every human action. This results in a world of extreme productivity, but an entirely suppressed human spirit. Equals basically instils fear by saying that in the future, all interaction must be “systems-approved,” and “without the unauthorized use of emotive viruses.”
Director Drake Doremus has an impeccable way of arranging the Equals universe so that every detail reflects and symbolizes the empty containers future humans have become. Lights are dimmed, as are hearts. Colors are bland, as are the character’s lives. All people are plasticine and perfect, like a new smart phone and flesh-colored skin.
Philosophically, Equals matches the intent of dystopian art and commentary in every way possible. This is true even when the gradual decay of the setting’s idealistic monoliths begin. In all of its perfection, the subversive “powers that be” in this particular future cannot completely eliminate the occurrence of unacceptable human emotions. Through edicts and social conditioning, they have equated feelings like love, wonder, happiness, and joy to the terror of catching an incurable virus.
Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart), are two respected members of this all-equal society who have the unfortunate fate of noticing each other in a way that is not approved by the collective. The strange and mutual feelings break through the character’s conditioning slowly, but soon invade every part of their thinking. This cascade of hopeful human-ness conquering fear and control, is where the movie both succeeds and falls short.
From the perspective of present day audiences, it’s wonderful to see the near mystical way that future people begin to understand that quelling feelings by prescription, is like holding back a tornado with a local ordinance against wind. The disappointing element however, is the choice of which characters experience the storm.
Simply posited, would the rediscovery of the power of emotion happen if either of the characters were not exceptionally attractive? Like a dormant seed finding the perfect soil to re-emerge, the rediscovery of feeling is good! How valuable and sacred is that seed really, unless it brings a desert back to life? In this particular future, how would the joy of having the freedom to explore feelings be universally beneficial unless it could happen to anyone, regardless of attraction? In other words, how can the infatuation with perfection that created a future devoid of feeling, suddenly be the cause of the rejection of that future?
Equals is an aesthetically interesting and engaging production. It sensitively uses modern movie-making technology in a way that would make the most recognized names in the genre, especially in the distant past, extremely envious. It would have been vastly more successful, had the seed and inextinguishable nature of love been portrayed as more spontaneously occurring, instead of being “discovered” by oblivious worker bees.