Drake Doremus scored with his first major feature “Like Crazy,” a tale of a love that broke all bounds; it had a great many virtues (including a fine performance by the late Anton Yelchin) but also some weaknesses. Sadly his follow-up, “Breathe In,” about a family ripped apart by the intrusion of a seductive exchange student, was one of those interesting failures whose promise goes unrealized. Unfortunately the downward trajectory continues with “Equals,” a dreary fable set in a futuristic dystopian society where emotion is considered an illness to be eradicated. Written by Nathan Parker, whose script for “Moon” made an intriguing if ultimately problematic debut for director Duncan Jones, it’s a detour into the overly familiar territory staked out by Alec Niccol in films like “Gattaca” and “In Time,” and Doremus treats the threadbare story with a turgid solemnity that does neither the script’s pedestrian ideas nor its attractive stars any favors.
The narrative focus is on Silas (Nicholas Hoult), who works as a member of the “speculative nonfiction” department in the Atmos Corporation, an important element of the post-apocalyptic society called The Collective. The life is one of rigid regimentation; human emotions have been genetically eliminated, and sexual activity is completely prohibited, procreation occurring through artificial means alone. Silas comes to the firm’s impressive but sterile headquarters from his equally functional apartment every day to stand before large monitors on which he and his colleagues research pre-catastrophe history as well as The Peninsula, an area outside the Collective where humans supposedly still live in a primitive state where emotions rule.
Despite the apparent placidity, however, the Collective is troubled by what its constant propaganda messages define as SOS, of Switched On Syndrome, in which citizens experience inexplicable flashes that mark a reversion to emotionalism. A cure is, the ruling establishment repeatedly assures listeners, “just around the corner,” but until it arrives, those diagnosed with the condition are closely monitored as it progresses through ever-more dangerous stages. Ultimately it can lead to one’s being transported to The Den, where the treatment is so brutal that sufferers often prefer suicide to it. When Silas is diagnosed as being infected, in fact, one of his superiors, Leonard (David Selby), will inquire matter-of-factly whether he’s considered that option.
By then, however, Silas has made a connection with co-worker Nia (Kristen Stewart), who’s a hider, one suffering from SOS who has succeeded in concealing the damning condition. Gradually the two become lovers, and Nicholas finds a support group that might just be the key to their departure for the Peninsula. Prominent among the members are Jonas (Guy Pearce, who starred in “Breathe In”), and Bess (Jacki Weaver), who will assist him in contriving a possible escape. Of course, things do not go as planned.
There’s obviously a “Romeo-and-Juliet-in-Dystopia” vibe to “Equals,” and it’s unquestionable that Hoult and Stewart fit the bill. But only he really convinces as part of the soulless Collective society, adopting a rigorously controlled bearing that gradually collapses as emotion takes over. Stewart, by contrast, exhibits a degree of tense fragility from the very start that undermines the premise—Nia practically breaks down when the office routine is abruptly interrupted by a suicide jumper outside their window, and it’s difficult to believe that only Silas would have noticed her reaction. It makes one wonder about the efficiency of this supposedly totalitarian regime.
Nonetheless, the two are a handsome, appealing pair, making their intimate scenes unquestionably easy to watch, and the supporting cast—not only Pearce, Weaver and Selby, but Bel Powley, Kate Lyn Sheil and Tom Stokes as increasingly suspicious Atmos workers—fully give themselves over to the premise. Visually the picture is also impressive, with cinematographer John Guleserian giving an appropriately steely, cold look to the locations—mainly in Japan and Singapore—that production designers Tino Schaedler and Katie Byron have chosen to represent the Collective’s architectural motifs. A throbbing electronic score by Sascha Ring and Dustin O’Halloran contributes to the otherworldly mood.
In the end, however, despite the passion that Hoult and Stewart manage to convey in the latter scenes, “Equals” never escapes a feeling of bloodlessness, a hectoring, didactic quality that’s exacerbated by Doremus’ ponderous direction and Jonathan Alberts’ sedate editing. The makers strive for profundity when in the end they offer nothing deeper than a sleeker replay of “Logan’s Run”—without that movie’s action and goofy sense of fun.