Visually sleek, Equals displays the emotional intelligence of a 13-year-old boy. As a dystopian tale of forbidden love, the film seems pitiful when compared to The Lobster—another A24 feature from this year, but one that was eminently more savvy and stylish.

The story, by director Drake Doremus (screenplay duties were handled by Nathan Parker) locates itself in a vague future, some time after the majority of civilization was destroyed by a great war. It zooms in on a society that has achieved tranquility through the genetic eradication of human emotions. This so-called “Collective” essentially functions like planet Vulcan, and the script’s limited humor lies entirely in Spock-as-straight-man style jokes.

Many of these orienting details are easy enough to miss. They’re also irrelevant, a circumstance that keeps the film from meeting its thematic potential. Rather than reflect intelligently on the implications of such a society, Equals chooses to focus on an uninspired central relationship: co-workers Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart) are afflicted with Switched On Syndrome (SOS), a disease which awakens human emotions in its victims. The Collective is searching for a cure for SOS, but in the meantime Silas and Nia find comfort and even happiness in a budding romance. Their rendezvous are high risk—“coupling” is strictly forbidden—and initially take place in a dimly-lit restroom stall.

At this point, it becomes clear that the dystopian setting is a mere plot device, utterly interchangeable or disposable. Equals morphs into a heavy-breathing extravaganza, as Nia and Silas spend the remainder of a dragging runtime desperately grasping at each other. Pulsing, fading close-ups of hands touching for the first time, trembling fingers and the delicate curve of Nia’s ear are the melodramatic mechanisms which alert us to an emotional and physical awakening worthy of an eighth grader’s diary.

Such shots are accompanied by an impressive original score by Sascha Ring of Apparat, and Dustin O’Halloran, who has worked with Doremus on previous films. Swelling synth makes the emotional landscape of the film legible. In fact, the soundtrack bears such an immense burden in communicating Equals’ emotional arc that it becomes distracting.

Still, it is part of an audiovisual experience that is quite pleasant. Equals was shot in Singapore and Japan, and its locations and sets appropriately convey the serenity of an emotionless existence, and John Guleserian’s cinematography washes the viewer in an array of soft glows and shadows.

Hoult and Stewart deliver good performances, establishing a convincing intimacy and displaying courageous vulnerability. If Doremus succeeded in eliciting these earnest moments, he did not connect them sufficiently to his project as a whole. Peripheral characters, like those that Nia and Silas meet in an SOS support group, offer tantalizing threads about the implications of the Collective, none of which begin to be fleshed out or followed up. In scenes where Nia and Silas are alone together, it feels uncomfortably like watching Hoult and Stewart connecting as their real world selves. This is hardly ameliorated by the unfortunate typecasting rut Stewart has fallen into. Here again, she plays angst and rumination with little specificity.

At the end of the day, angst is the emotional driver for Equals, a film almost as flat as the dystopia it envisions.

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