Speculative fiction has always been allegorical. The alternate worlds, be they in the future or some parallel plane of existence, are meant to illuminate and comment on our own when the culture of the current moment does not invite the sort of commentary the author is looking to make. Jonathan Swift once famously opined that satire was a mirror in which we see every face but our own. Those blind spots aren’t for lack of trying on the artists’ part. From Gulliver’s Travels to Animal Farm, the fantastic differences of the fantasy worlds simply serve to underscore their uncomfortable similarities to our own.
That Equals‘s world without emotion is meant primarily as an allegory in which we can perhaps see the ostracizing of homosexuals (or AIDS victims) is hard to miss. When Silas (Nicholas Hoult) is diagnosed with S.O.S. (Switched-on-Syndrome) the language he and his community use is painfully on the nose. It isn’t contagious, uninfected people are assured over and over. “A cure is right around the corner,” Silas is assured by a diagnostician who sounds an awful lot like he’s be just as happy if Silas went ahead and killed himself even if the dictates of a progressive society demand that they work for a cure. Like an AIDS patient, Silas is taking “inhibitors” to slow the progress of the disease that makes him feel human emotions. Perhaps like some newly out-of-the-closet LBGTQ people, he feels a surge of panic when he acts out on his orientation, and he must be assured during a sexual encounter that what he is doing is normal and natural, even if the broader society says it isn’t. In a staff meeting with fearful colleagues, Silas reiterates that there is no evidence that S.O.S. is contagious, but he offers to wear a mask if that will put his uninfected neighbors at ease. As evidence of his own uninfected status, an acquaintance loudly proclaims that he was able to “give blood.”
So Equals (★★½) isn’t exactly subtle. Is it good, though?
It tries to be, mostly by harnessing Kristen Stewart, who is coming off two riveting performances (Still Alice; The Clouds of Sils Maria) and who feels as though she’s be been lingering on the cusp of superstardom for so long one almost forgets (and certainly forgives) all those vampire movies. And it seems always on the verge of insight.
Ultimately, though, it never uses its distance from the present moment to say anything daring. Forcing people to be something they are not is wrong. Emotions are messy, sure, but the loss of our humanity in order to be safe (from war, disease, whatever) is too high a price to pay. The messages are vanilla and mainstream. The necessarily static emotional affect of all the actors makes the film itself too static, a problem not helped by Drake Doremus’s direction. Costumes, color scheme, delivery, everything looks and feels the same. That said, we never quite feel the oppressiveness of that sameness, only its surface dullness.
The film’s last act does go in some unexpected directions, and that’s a plus. Normally this is the part of the dystopian ficiton that is the most generic — the escape. Equals is at its best when it shows us the silent majority and how they negotiate their own place in a world not of their choosing. And who knows, it may be a useful film to share with those who wouldn’t actually watch a film that was overtly about LGBTQ people.
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