Equals takes place in the future, in a society known as The Collective. The members of The Collective do not feel emotion, the genes that govern feeling shut down generations ago. Silas (Nicholas Hoult) develops the symptoms of Switched On Syndrome, a disorder that causes said genes to reawaken, triggering emotion. Silas tries to hide it at first, but his new emotions manifest as an attraction to his co-worker Nia (Kristen Stewart), who much to his surprise, also has the disorder and has been hiding it. In a society where love is forbidden, Silas and Nia risk everything as they explore the boundaries of their feelings.
The movie gets to a slow start as it sketches out the cold, inhuman dystopia that is The Collective. Rendered in future modern trappings, the setting is presented as a mostly benign, unfeeling society. People go to work, have perfunctory interactions, and do a puzzle before going to sleep. The only thing that breaks up the routine is Switched On Syndrome, which causes people to lose control of their emotions, and thus become unproductive members of society. And then the sinister side is revealed: those who suffer from the advanced stages of Switched On Syndrome are sent to facilities from which they never return.
As a metaphor, it isn't particularly elegant. What the film fails to convey is how the world grew to fear emotion. One would assume that a lack of human empathy would lead to the very same catastrophe clunkily described early on in the picture. But once the movie just gets past that point, and starts developing the relationship between the two main characters, it becomes something more compelling. The movie doesn't get very complex, but the scenes in which these two people who are uncomfortable with their feelings explore the possibilities of romance can be quite moving.
The more effective portions take place in the middle of a film that seems convinced that it’s saying something profound. But the movie doesn’t really have anything more substantial to it than “feelings are good.” If the film were just a little self-serious, it would be easier to fall into the romance of these people, to accept the fizziness of their chemistry. But as it is, the movie moves forward as a grand statement that isn’t very grand at all. It feels trite, the mechanical nature of these human interactions overdone to the point of farce.
Production-wise, the film gets a lot out of what appears to be a limited budget. Locations are full of impressive architectural detail, conveying a world of meticulous attention to detail in spite of a lack of variation in design. The camera work isn’t very exciting, but it gets the job done. Scenes are limited to a few colors, the film very transparent with regards to the emotionality of its sequences. Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart are pretty great in these roles. Both actors have a disposition that makes them particularly suited to these characters, who must hide their emotionality behind placid exteriors.
Equals is uneven at best, but it’s kind of moving in the back stretch. The construction of this world and this plot can be shoddy, but there are individual scenes where the disparate elements hardly matter. There is something affecting about these characters cautiously accepting the reality of their feelings, and being forced to take risks because of that reality. But then the world snaps back, and it becomes more difficult to buy into all of it. But in their unsure passions, the film delivers a version of romance that might be worth seeing.