Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Films of 2016: Equals

[Beware of spoilers.]

The great era of the dystopian science fiction film arrived in the early 1970s. That’s the age that gave audiences films such as THX-1138 (1971), Z.P.G. (1972), Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973), and Logan’s Run (1976), to name just a few titles. All these films posited future societies wherein something had gone terribly, dreadfully wrong, at least in human terms.

The majority of these disco-decade dystopian productions focused on issues such as Statism, environmentalism, and overpopulation, to name just a few hot-button issues of the epoch.  Those with a knowledge of literature will suggest that these films are, in some ways, children of George Orwell, and that author’s seminal dystopian work: 1984 (1949).

The success of George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) ended the reign of the dystopia in the science fiction cinema, and the format never really managed to reinvent itself into something popular, except on isolated occasions (1987’s The Running Man, 1997’s Gattaca, or 2002’s Equilibrium).  Recently, film franchises such as The Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner have revived the form in the guise of young adult entertainment.

Part of the reason for the relative paucity of single-serving, adult dystopic productions involves the changing nature of Hollywood movie-making.  One-off dystopian films don’t lend themselves easily to happy endings, and the homogenized nature of films today requires, often, precisely such happy endings. The Hunger Games, a series, had the opportunity to take several films to establish both its world, and the undoing of its dystopia.

The 2016 film Equals, starring Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult and directed by Doremus Drake, however, is a one-off dystopian film, and a fascinating one at that.  The film involves a future society called “The Collective” that has outlawed -- and genetically removed -- human emotions.  However, some denizens of “The Collective” experience a disease called S.O.S. (Switched on Syndrome) that renders them susceptible to emotion, and therefore human contact and intimacy.

The film’s production design and palette involves a stark brand of white-on-white minimalism. This color scheme suggests the Collective’s literal lack of “color” and dynamic individualism.

Remarkably, however, at the same time that Equals is set against a blinding white-on-white world, it creates, through beautiful close-ups, a sense of not just tactility, but subtle eroticism. The film is a love story, at least of sorts, and because it is set against a world without touch, each touch carries amazing impact.  In short, Equals is beautifully-staged and executed.

In terms of detail Equals owes some of its narrative twists and turns to literary and film antecedents including the aforementioned 1984, and THX-1138, but also, in its last act details, Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet (1595). 

That description may make the film sound derivative or half-cooked, but on the contrary, Equals accomplishes well the central task of the dystopian cinema: The film lands the viewer inside an alternate world that we can read, at least in terms of visual and thematic subtext, as being closely-related to our own.

“Every day, I’m practicing unbearable discipline and self-control.”

After a devastating and destructive world war, only two known inhabitable places are known to still exist on the Earth. 

One such place is “The Peninsula,” a wild land believed to be inhabited by primitives who congregate in families, and cling to one another for survival.

The other place is “The Collective,” a technological society that has outlawed human emotions, and genetically engineered for such emotions to be suppressed at a point between conception and birth.

However, some individuals in “The Collective” still feel emotions, and break the law by expressing emotions, or worse, “coupling.”  Those who couple -- known as “Defects” -- are taken to the Den, a facility where they are encouraged to commit suicide. 

One denizen of “The Collective,” Silas (Hoult) is horrified to learn that he has acquired Stage One of S.O.S. (Switched on Syndrome) and will eventually be sent to the Den for the execution of a “pain-free death scenario.”

At his job at Atmos, a kind of propagandistic magazine for The Collective and its space program, Silas falls in love with an illustrator, Nia (Stewart). 

As he soon discovers, she is a “hider,” meaning that Nia has S.O.S. (Stage 4) but has thus far been able to hide it from the society, including the doctors and her co-workers.

Silas and Nia embark on a dangerous and intimate relationship, becoming, in secret, couplers.  When Silas’s manager comes to suspect the nature of their relationship, Silas realizes they must stop meeting.  They are unable to do so, however, and continue to violate the laws of their culture.

Then, further complicating issues, a state-mandated cure for S.O.S. is released, meaning that Silas and Nia now have the opportunity to be “cured” of their emotions.

“I’d rather be with people who feel.”

Imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which you can’t act upon -- or even show -- your feelings, or emotions. In Equals, Silas lives a live of solitude.

He touches no one, and is touched by no one. He lives alone, functions in an emotionless work-place, and is not able to feel compassion, anger, sadness, or any other emotion that we take for granted every single today.

The early portions of the film do a powerful job of diagramming Silas’s empty life. His sky-rise apartment is an empty cube, wherein functional modules emerge and retract from the walls to serve his needs. A control panel gives him three options: “Eat. Sleep. Live.” 

If he wants to eat, a kitchen module emerges, then retracts to the wall when he is finished. If Silas wants to sleep, the bed extends from the wall and he naps. And the living aspect of the equation involves showering and playing puzzles. 

All these activities, all these tasks, are vetted alone.  There is no companionship. There is no family.

To us, it seems an empty life of the proverbial “quiet desperation,” and the filmmakers are extraordinarily effective in revealing the sameness of life in The Collective. Silas has a closet stacked with identical white outfits, for example. And we are told that he has solved, already, over 2,200 puzzles.

A good dystopian film must complete a significant amount of world-building, to seem convincing, and the early passages of Equals reveal the routine and nature of this world in glorious detail. As the film continues, and we begin to ask questions how the society could continue to exist like this, the film provides further answers.  Since there is no coupling in the Collective, the population, we learn, is controlled by the State through a process of compulsory insemination. Some female citizens are required to report for “conception duty.”  Children are raised by “guardian” citizens, not parents.

The laws are enforced, as well, not by Sandmen (Logan’s Run), or robot policemen (THX-1138), but by individuals wearing white uniforms with overall-like decorations on the front and back of their shirts.

We also the pervasive role of propaganda in this State. There are public TV-type screens of enormous size in entrance-ways, and every apartment is also outfitted with such a screen. These screens appear to display only State-sponsored messages.

What I find interesting, and perhaps a little out-of-date about this fascinating society is the fact that The Collective appears to have no surveillance of its own citizenry.

It does appear, however, that citizens are encouraged to look for signs of S.O.S. and rat each other out, but if TV technology exists, it seems like surveillance would be ubiquitous too.

Above, I noted in my introduction to this review that the great test of a dystopian film involves the audience’s ability to relate the imaginary world to its own real world. 

Certainly, Equals passes this test with flying colors. When Silas and Nia meet clandestinely on the job, and note that their love is forbidden, it is impossible not to think of the way that homosexuality has been historically marginalized and derided in our society.

The “Defects” in the Collective are told that their feelings are actually symptoms of a disease, and that they can be cured of it if only they submit to the state. The constant drumbeat of being told they are sick is not merely propaganda, but a form of psychological bullying, at least in some senses. Silas’s manager at Atmos, for instance, asks him “Have you thought about killing yourself yet?”

Silas and Nia know what they feel for one another, but are constantly told by society and by denizens that those feelings are invalid; and that they are not entitled to those feelings because, simply, they are not the (sanctioned) “norm” of the society.  This is what an overbearing State looks like: one that enforces conformity in “love.”

On another level entirely, Equals seems to concern, at least obliquely, the Autism scale, particularly Asperger Syndrome.

As you may know, Asperger’s is a developmental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to communicate or socialize effectively within a culture. The Collective in Equals is essentially a society that encourages such restrictions, but considers those restrictions the norm.

In that way, the society is a mirror or reflection for our own. We expect people to be like us, and to express emotions the way that we do.  But not everyone is wired to achieve that benchmark.

Forbidden love in a totalitarian society has been a cornerstone of the dystopian film, seen in versions of 1984 and in THX-1138. Equals re-treads familiar territory by taking it on as its central theme, and the film’s final act gets caught too deeply in the mechanics of that love story.

For instance, Nia is captured and sent to the den, and Silas becomes despondent, contemplating both suicide and taking the cure to “switch off” his emotions.  Those are both irreversible acts. 

Silas is then “helped” by an S.O.S. support group to rescue Nia, but through a mistake of mistaken identity, fails to understand that she is alive and free. 

So, the supporting characters of Jonas (Guy Pearce) and Bess (Judi Walker) -- friends of Silas -- prove about as helpful to the lovers as Friar Laurence and the Nurse do to Romeo and Juliet, in the aforementioned tragedy.

Still, Equals overcomes some of its grinding, mechanical plotting through two virtues. 

The first one, unequivocally, is the film’s gorgeous photography. Director Drake crafts a series of beautiful close-ups of eyes, lips, hands, and flesh, making us feel the impact of every look, every touch.  For a film that paints a “snow blind” world in terms of human interaction, it is shocking to see how effective these close-ups are in ratcheting up the film’s sense of eroticism, and keying us into Silas and Nia’s sense of discovery about each other, and the joys of physical contact (and sex).

The second virtue, of course, is the underlying, humanist message. Equals features several characters debating emotions, and whether they are, in fact, contagious.

When you meet someone who feels deeply…are you more inclined to feel deeply too? 

When we are loved, do we “switch on” and give love back more fully? 

The film’s final close-up, which I will not reveal here, suggests -- in inspirational fashion -- that there is no cure, genetic or otherwise – that can overcome the bonds of human connection.

Equals ventures into some familiar territory, it is true, but this is a dystopian film worth visiting in 2016, both for its beautiful photography, and its nuanced emotionalism. 

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