Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart star in this science fiction romance set in a futuristic utopian society called the Collective. Somehow through genetic modification, the Collective has done away with human emotions, thus ending all crime, violence, and war, but also sadness, lust, and happiness.
Silas (Hoult) and Nia (Stewart) live in a bland utopian future where color has been stricken away from people’s everyday lives. A world where practically everything is either white or gray gives an instant visual cue of what this society is all about. Every action serves a purpose. People walk toward their destinations without deviation. There is no dilly-dallying, no acting out, It is also a nonfiction-based society; all entertainment is logic-based and educational. Only the most calming classical music is pumped through public speakers. People don’t even seem to cook their own food. Without emotions life becomes…lifeless.
Something the Collective has not been able to eradicate is a disorder known as “Switched on Syndrome” (or SOS, cheeky). Sufferers of SOS begin to feel emotions in four stages, which lead to laughter, sadness, and good ol’ lovin’, but it also opens their eyes to how isolated they are as a minority in a world without feeling. Which is why people who have SOS inevitably commit suicide.
Switched on Syndrome sounds a lot like the 1960s’ slang “Turned On”: to trip on acid or another mind-altering drug for the first time, with the underlining meaning that the user sees the world with clarity for the first time. Similar to real-world counterculture movements, those who develop SOS are seen as a danger that could disrupt the entire society.
It should come as no surprise that our main character, Silas, becomes diagnosed with SOS and, as an outcome of his disorder, he becomes attracted to the rather vapid Nia, aptly played here by Kristen Stewart. Eventually Nia confesses to Silas that she also has the syndrome and has been hiding her emotions for the past year or so. And then the two start knocking boots. If you’re expecting the movie to go all Blue Lagoon with Hoult and Stewart exploring their hormones together, well, think again. Instead we are treated to vignettes of them canoodling in silhouette. The movie respectfully holds back from getting too lusty to maintain its focus. Even when Silas is in the shower and starts touching himself, one hand rubs the other as if he had never felt anything before.
Of course, this story has been told before, ad nauseam, by a plethora of science fiction variations such as THX 1138, Logan’s Run, and Gattaca, but the film that visually and thematically is Equals’ most equal is Pleasantville. You know, the one that takes place in 1950s black-and-white, but once Reese Witherspoon starts teaching the whole town how to have sex, people start seeing colors?
The film’s silly title, Equals, ironically conveys what makes its characters’ romance less than compelling: Silas and Nia are the same in every way, so why should anyone care? Films set in supposed utopian societies that use heterosexual, cisgendered men and women of the same race and social class as stand-ins for all other forms of forbidden love were already becoming tired years ago, and Equals is no exception.