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DVD Review: Equals

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equals

One of the most interesting filmmakers working today in American independent cinema, Drake Doremus returns with Equals, a sci-fi dystopian romance which concludes his trilogy of films thematically built around love in its various forms and complications.

After premiering in competition at last year’s Venice Film Festival, to lukewarm reception, it’s no surprise that Equals is only receiving a straight to VOD/DVD release in the UK, despite having Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult as the leads, yet it’s a shame not being able to appreciate its gorgeous visuals on the silver screen.

In fairness, the slick look and the A-list cast, which also includes great names like Jackie Weaver and Guy Pearce, are not fully supported by a premise that’s been exploited before, despite some interesting variations in the execution.

Equals is not an adaptation of the hottest new YA literary franchise, though the ingredients are all there – Philip Noyce’s The Giver (2014) is probably the most recent example that comes to mind for comparison (even if that novel was actually dated). Doremus and co-writer Nathan Parker (Moon) at least deserve credit for attempting their own spin on the classic dystopian future where human feelings have been suppressed to favour peace.

The story revolves around Silas (Hoult) who works as an illustrator at a company called Atmos and, like everyone else, goes about his solitary life made of dull routines he endures because of his lack of emotions. However Silas soon discovers to have contracted SOS (Switched On Syndrome), a disease that threatens society’s new order by reinstating all feelings.

As constantly reminded by public service announcements, a cure is near but until it’s found, those who reach the more advanced stages of SOS are sent in isolation to the Den, where most of them either commit suicide or are treated with electro-shock and other extremes therapies. Silas struggles to hide his condition, albeit still at the early stages but then, as he feels drawn more and more to co-worker Nia (Stewart), he discovers she is a “hider”, one of those plagued subjects who are able to control how to conceal their condition.

As easily imaginable, the two fall in love and plan to escape to the outside world, which is populated by misfits and outcasts who still live driven by emotions. But of course obstacles will be on their path, despite the help they receive from Jonas (Guy Pearce) and Bess (Jackie Weaver) who run an underground support group of SOS-infected citizens.

Doremus’ cinematic trilogy started in 2011 with his Sundance-winning breakthrough Like Crazy, starring Felicity Jones and the late Anton Yelchin, about international lovers separated by bureaucracy, yet bound to discover deeper issues. Breathe In (2013) was the second entry in this love trilogy of sorts with Jones returning, this time to play an exchange student who gets entangled in an adulterous affair with the patriarch of her host family, played by Guy Pearce.

By returning in Equals, albeit in a supporting role, the brilliant Aussie provides the spiritual link across the films this time around. But just like the rest of the cast, the script doesn’t serve him as well as it could. In the “making of” featurette, Doremus underlines his thematic obsession with love and his focus on characters rather than plot.

In his previous two films where his actors improvised around an outlined script, the California-native filmmaker has been rather faithful to his creative vision. In Equals things seem to be executed in more traditional fashion and it’s probably understandable in a way, because of the film’s concept. After all, the reality depicted on screen is that of a numb world governed by monotony and big brother.

Yet it feels like the filmmakers only achieve what they aim to through the aseptic look of costume and production designs but could’ve pushed things further story-wise, for instance, by showing the outside world in contrast to the status quo rather than only having us hear about it.

Hoult and Stewart fit rather well together though the story could’ve concocted something a bit more exciting for their characters to do in order to win us over. It’d be easy to make jokes about the American actress’ alleged lack of range being suitable for a character that lacks human emotion. However, I’ll gloss over recycled criticism by appreciating Stewart’s newly found lease on her career path post Twilight era, choosing to work with filmmakers who have something to say rather than the studio machine.

The British actor on the other hand, despite landing big blockbusters like the X-Men franchise, seems to still be eluding the zeitgeist that former girlfriend Jennifer Lawrence has captured. Here he definitely proves once again that he’s a generous performer who hasn’t yet fully shown what he’s capable of and should focus on more challenging scripts that are suitable to his skills.

Equals is not a bad film in any way. It just feels like a missed opportunity – it could’ve been a fresher piece of sci-fi, even if the genre was just an excuse to set the final love story in Doremus’ ideal trilogy. Despite missing the kind of spark that made Like Crazy one of my top ten films of the decade, my love for the director’s vision and sensibility is untarnished and I look forward to seeing where his obsessive exploration of love will take him next.

3-out-of-5

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