Equals: Kristen Stewart in Stylish but Dull Dystopian Sci-Fi with Handsomer Nicholas Hoult

Equals Opens July 15, 2016

One of the most intriguing actresses of her generation, Kristen Stewart has been extremely prolific over the past three years, claiming credit to over a dozen films, most of which worth seeing largely due to her electric–and electrifying–performances.

If my reading is valid, by the end of 2016, Stewart would have six films that bear her name, either playing in legit theaters or streaming and on demand.  I just got back from the Cannes Film Fest, where the young (only 26) and beautiful actress appeared in two major films, in Woody Allen’s Café Society (Cannes opening night) and in Olivier Assayas’ English-speaking debut, Personal Shopper.

equals_2But, alas, Equals, the new sci-fi romance (or romantic sci-fi), which premiered (in competition) at the 2015 Venice Film Fest, is not one of Stewart’s best features, though it is not her fault.

What begins as a stylish and promising dystopian sci-fi, set in a future where no emotions exist (or allowed to exist), gradually turns into a more simplistic and conventional saga about forbidden love and a young, defiant couple on the run.

Equals represents the teaming of two gifted filmmakers, both AFI grads, director Drake Doremus, who made a splash with his debut film, Like Crazy, and screenwriter Nathan Parker, best known for the estimable sci-fi, Moon.  Both films world premiered at the Sundance Film Fest, suggesting bright futures for their creators.

equals_4The first reel, which is visually gorgeous with its white costumes and sets placed against white walls, depicts a society after a horrible disaster has wiped out most of humanity.  The remaining residents, all wearing white uniforms, look and behave like robots; they are automatons who go through their daily routines but are prohibited from feeling or expressing any emotions.

While Equals is not a disastrous film, it is a major disappointment, bearing too many thematic (but not visual) similarities to other dystopian sc0gfi, such as Andrew Niccol’s still underestimated Gattacha, starring Ethan Hawke.

The film received a mixed to negative response at Venice Film Fest, and I expect the same divided critical attention when the movie bows in the U.S. this summer.

The tale’s two protagonists, Nia (Kristen Stewart) and Silas (Nicholas Hoult), are young and handsome.  Like the other mates, they live, at first separately, a bland, isolated and boring life in similarly-looking apartments, where all of their basic biological needs–eating, showering, sleeping–are contained and executed with maximum efficiency and precision.

equals_3Nia is observed writing essays about intergalactic exploration,while Silas illustrates “speculative non-fiction” about the outcasts who have been banished from the world because of their emotions.

Turning point occurs when Silas suddenly starts “feeling” matters.  When he reports to the clinic, Silas discovers that he’s in the early stages of SOS, “Switched-On Syndrome,” a condition that occurs when one’s emotions fail to disappear(Spoiler Alert: Nia also has SOS, but for a long time, she is able to hide it).

The early scenes in which Silas observes Nia intensely are erotically charged and you wish the rest of the film were the same.  In long, soundless stretches, the couple exchange yearning and meaningful looks.  The director and his lenser, John Gulesarian, do excellent job in allotting close-ups and mega close-ups to their extremely photogenic stars, dwelling on their eyes, noses, lips, heads, shoulders.

The whole movie has a strange glow, making everyone and everything look ultra-pale, but the whiteness becomes repetitious and even numbing after a while, because it doesn’t support any new idea other than the initial premise.

equals_5Occasionally, there’s talk of a savage world that exists beyond the high walls, where “non-unfeeling” individuals live, but we never get to see it. As a result, this important contrast between the two milieus, which would have enriched the narrative, is left unexplored.  (Spoiler Alert: Ironically, when the protagonists get out, the exterior reality seems just as boring as their previous locale).

Thus, up to the last reel, we’re confined to an intentionally bland future, waiting for something–anything–exciting to happen.  We wait and wait, and when finally there’s action, it turns out to be vastly frustrating because it’s so conventional.  It feels as if the scribe and director could not find a better way to resolve the tale’s central conflict.

In the end, Equals suffers from the same problems that bog down many other films. Silas and Nia are just not interesting as dramatis personae, or as a romantic couple, though there is chemistry between the thespians, and the first time they feel each other is both genuinely erotic and emotionally touching).

I don’t want to dismiss the film completely as it offers, especially in the first half, many visual pleasures, even if ultimately they fail to serve the ultra-minimal plot and under-developed characterization.

Savvy spectators might see the film’s excessive visual strategies–this is after all a Ridley Scott production–as an invitation to voyeurism, due to the strong emphasis on fetish objects and behaviors.

Restrained by the limitations of the writing, Hoult gives an adequate (but no more) performance.  Interestingly, the actor had previously played a similar role in Warm Bodies, a zombie who slowly thaws to the idea of love.

equals_1In the wake of the Twilight franchise, which put her on the map, Stewart has been doing consistently interesting work–witness her supporting roles in Still Alice, as the rebellious daughter of Julianne Moore’s domineering professor, and in Clouds of Sils Maria, also directed by Frenchman Assayas, as Juliette Binoche’s assistant, for which she won a Supporting Cesar (French Oscar), thus becoming the first American actress to win this prestigious award.


A child actor, Stewart first made an impression as Jodie Foster’s daughter in David Fincher’s thriller, Panic Room.  Claiming over three dozen films, Stewart represents one of the most positive surprises as far as American acting is concerned.  Despite the fact that, with few exceptions, most of her films have been critical and commercial flops, Stewart has become a dominant actress and the leading lady of her own movies, as manifest in Equals and the upcoming Café Society and Personal Shopper.

Hopefully, Equals, which s bound to fail commercially, should serve as no more than a footnote to what’s quickly evolving as a glorious–and iconic–acting career.