(2016) ** Pg-13
101 min. Lionsgate. Director: Drake Doremus. Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Kristen Stewart, Vernetta Lopez, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, Bel Powley.


Beautiful production value, attentive direction, and fine performances go a long way for a movie, but they're not enough. The story has to engage or, better yet, resonate in emotional or thematic terms. And that's where director Drake Doremus runs into trouble with his futuristic romance Equals. Doremus and screenwriter Nathan Parker have an allegorical end in mind, but it doesn't break through the specific trappings of another antiseptic dystopia on the theme of emotional suppression (see THX-1138 and The Giver, to name but two).

Equals unfolds in The Collective, a postapocalyptic society where emotions appear only rarely in the rebooted humanity. When they do, they're met as defects or symptoms of an incurable illness, a "bug" dubbed SOS (Switched-On Syndrome). It's an austere world of white, gray, and beige, work days and lonely nights, and Orwellian instructions, warnings, and promises from the powers that be, delivered with commercial effciency on omnipresent screens ("MONITOR YOUR OWN BEHAVIOR AND OTHERS...LET'S ALL DO OUR PART"). Naturally, emotional aberrations abound, as do suspicion and paranoia, reports of "couplers" and suicides, and ostensibly reassuring talk of a cure "right around the corner." Until then, SOS sufferers face an inevitable late-stage transfer to The DEN (Defective Emotional Neuropathy) facility.

Nicholas Hoult's Silas (or 618429877) works as an illustrator of "speculative non-fiction" in the vicintiy of fellow drone Nia (Kristen Stewart). When he begins showing apparent symptoms, Silas submits himself to examination and a stage-one SOS diagnosis. Naturally, knowing you have SOS only makes matters worse, and Silas develops irrepressible feelings for Nia. As it turns out, Nia has SOS too, but had the good sense not to walk right into getting a diagnosis on her permanent record. As a "hider" for some time, she's oriented herself to resist, but when she falls for Silas in return, they'll both have to troubleshoot his transparent Collective status as a feeling human being. There's some help to be had from an underground group of rebels, including Jonas (Guy Pearce) and Bess (Jacki Weaver).

I suppose it's a good thing that the indie-minded Equals has nothing so gauche as an action scene to threaten its seriousness of intent, but in the absence of excitement or humor, the audience runs the serious risk of Switched-Off Syndrome. The picture plods along in a rather familiar and dull and predictable manner, and even the performances and beautiful decorousness of it all are, by design, a bit boring. Whatever goodwill you bring for the two leads helps, but it's both difficult to buy into the world of the movie or to see its relevance to our emotional ways of life in 2016 (except perhaps in the increased insularity—though it's hardly emotionless—of a tech-addicted society).

For Doremus and Parker, the banished-emotions business is more of a means to an end, anyway, the end being an exploration of the waves of a relationship: fear and resistance, embrace, and that low ebb of romantic amnesia that threatens a couple's longevity. On paper, that sounds intriguing, but in practice, Equals too closely resembles the narcotic world it depicts. Without ever doing anything conspicuously wrong, Equals plays like one big miscalculation, an otherwise perfect dolphin that would be a sight to behold were it not cripplingly beached. 

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 9/6/2016

Distributor: Lionsgate Home Video

Lionsgate gives Equals the sleek digital-to-digital transfer it deserves, with a restrained but precise sound mix. Both excel at the job of replicating the theatrical experience of Equals in great detail. The soft-lit interiors look lovely in hi-def, as do the considerably brighter exteriors, while color and contrast are perfectly calibrated to the filmmakers' intent. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is spot on the task of delivering front-and-center dialogue that's usually hushed in delivery but always effectively audible, and the ambient score by Dustin O'Halloran and Sascha Ring likewise comes through in every subtlety. Speaking of "ambient," the film's airless world may be quiet, but when there are environmental sounds to be had, they're well-placed to lend some immersive effect.

Lionsgate assembles some terrific bonus features for this special edition, beginning with a thorough and thoughtful audio commentary with director Drake Doremus, cinematographer John Guleserian and editor Jonathan Alberts.

Three featurettes amount to an hour-long making-of documentary, and a really good one. "Switched On" (8:15, HD) allows Doremus, producer Michael Pruss, screenwriter Nathan Parker, producer Jay Stern, producer Chip Diggins, Nicholas Hoult, and Kristen Stewart to chat up the basics of the film's world, story, and production, while "The Collective" (13:35, HD) finds Stewart, Hoult, Doremus, Parker, Jacki Weaver explaining the work of the actors in tandem with Doremus to bring the characters and their specific interactions to credible life.

The most detailed of the featurettes, "Utopia" (30:11, HD), gets into the distinctive location choices and design elements with Parker, producer Ann Ruark, Doremus, Georgina Pope, production designer Tino Schaedler, Hoult, Stewart, production designer Katie Byron, supervising art director Jason Hougaard, art director Kikuo Ota, food stylist Yuri Nomura, Atilla Salih Yücer, and Pruss.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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