“Every test successfully met is rewarded by some growth in intuitive knowledge, strengthening of character, or initiation into a higher consciousness.” ― Paul Brunton, The Notebooks of Paul Brunton
I’m starting to grow restless of these dystopian movies—I really am. I can’t take much more of them. Every time I go to thinking that the latest one will offer up something new and inventive, not even a third of the way in and I feel myself drifting off into outer space due to boredom. I would love to tell you that I made it past the half hour mark with Equals (dir. Drake Doremus, Breathe In) before the boredom set in but sadly that wasn’t the case. Sure, I’ve seen worse science fiction but this movie really tested my patience. Again, I’m not quite yet a critical mass but boy, oh boy…
My main problem with Equals—and films of its ilk—is the casual, subtle, eugenic nature of them that none of these movies ever bother to address. How can a supposedly functioning, safe, harmonic “perfect society” like the one presented in Equals not be traumatized by the event that took place in order for it to come into existence? The answer is a bit of a cliché—and safely bundled up in the premise, I guess. But I can’t help but counter by stating how much of a cop-out that is: that in the future, after a nuclear event that wiped out most of the Earth’s human population, society will now be held in check with pills that will keep people in line and docile—and negate their sex drive too. And I know I shouldn’t be thinking about weighty, complex issues like eugenics while I’m watching a movie and rather putting my focus on trying to enjoy it. But there were just too many questions floating around that needed answering. Like, what’s so special about the handful of brown and Asian people that are allowed to “live” in The Collective? Why are they so okay with living under these conditions (restrictions)? Are they even allowed to question the setup of things? And why does The Collective feel that it’s okay to keep their numbers so much smaller than that of the white citizens, seeing as the State regulates child birth? Wouldn’t this tip the brown and Asian people off that something in their society is amiss? The fact that the races aren’t all represented with “equal” numbers? So are the people of color on a regimen of pills different from the white citizens? Ones that don’t make them realize that they’re outnumbered? And shouldn’t they be the ones committing suicide? (Seriously, do a Google search for minority suicide rates and see what pops up.) And how about the elephant in the room: (institutional) racism? It doesn’t seem to exist anymore, so how did that one get handled? With a premise so vague, it can’t just be summed up that some “pill” makes things so, or can it? If so, then this movie just jacked Big Pharma’s battle cry. They’re the loons who think that there’s a pill for “everything.”
Here in the West—America, Canada, (Western) Europe, Australia; Brazil all of a sudden—movies, like mostly everything else, are Eurocentric. But apparently no one slid Mother Earth the memo. Let’s see, umm, a quick head count… Oh, that’s odd. Brown people actually outnumber white people globally by a ratio of 11 to 1. So to see wide, serene, panoramic shots of a dystopian (virtually) white society living out their days without a care in the world, one has to think that their “government” or their elders or their who-have-yous were totally chill about the “vanishing” of 70% of the world’s human population, or damn near, to make way for their futuristic, techno-deficient Shangri-La. Again, to recount: brown (and Asian) people currently make up roughly 70% of the world’s population and this movie, like so many others in its genre, makes no attempt at explaining their disappearance, or even bothers to offer up a commemoration. Here, I suppose, some vague nuclear war is mentioned as to why the world’s population has been depleted, but still—why is it always the brown people who suffer huge losses? To me, it seems statistically improbable… At this point in life I shouldn’t be surprised that this is always the case with Western science fiction, movies or otherwise. But seriously, ponder that for a second: the disappearance of 5.2 billion brown and Asian people from the face of the Earth. Do you know what that is? Well, boys and girls that is the equivalent of 262 Native American holocausts!
The only reason why black people are even in this movie is so that the hams who run the movie biz can experience that warm cozy feeling about their tummies for being Progressive™. And the only reason why Asian people are in this movie probably has something to do with my sneaky suspicion that a portion of the financing for the film came from the Orient—after quickly glancing at the credits. Shame on me, but I lack the confidence in believing that if this film were backed by a major American movie studio that it would be so racially diverse—and the film isn’t, though it would like to believe it is. Then again, maybe Equals could’ve been made by a major studio. But I doubt the people of color would’ve been able to use their real voices and speak with their natural inflections and at a normal tone (blacks yell; Asians whisper) … So yeah, there’d be black people in it—and a few Hispanic people too, for good measure. And as usual, there would be no Asian actors—they always seem to get the shaft for some reason… What? Don’t come at me, bro. You should know by now how Hollywood likes to roll them off the assembly line. Don’t believe me? Just go watch Pitch Perfect 1 & 2 then report back to me and tell me what you saw. Tell me you saw fine, excellent representations of Asian-Americans, please do—I dare you. So however you feel about that swipe at Asians (it isn’t; I love Asian people), don’t use that energy to troll me. Use that same energy to write your congressman a letter. (Boom! Current political snark. Two points!)
Okay, it’s been awhile since I’ve done this. I’m a bit rusty, but here goes…
Equals begins just like every other film in its genre: with the main character playing the part of a loner and at the same time, a distant dreamer of sorts with mad ADHD, or restlessness, or something. They all run the same; I can never tell. Aside from the aforementioned affliction(s), the world that the character lives in seems to have a peculiar knack for sparseness. And by that I mean: all of the garbage we’re amassing as human beings, currently rotting inside freight containers on barges in the Atlantic Ocean and Yangtze River, or floating freely atop the water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, or secretly being hidden deep underneath the sand in the Nevada desert is now gone. The future, once again, will be without clutter. Tall, well-lit skyscrapers, yes; but no clutter. Silas (Nicholas Hoult, X-Men: Apocalypse), though I could’ve sworn I heard his name pronounced “solace” the first time around, is who Equals is centered on. He too gets an insufferable meta-/biblical name to go by. Because if this movie did have any religious undertones—there are none—there’d be no escaping the striking similarities between movie Silas and the real-life biblical Silas who ventured about the then known world behind St. Paul the Apostle as he went on his excursions. Yes, movie Silas too has a strong desire walk the earth like his namesake but his reason is that he can no longer find “solace” in the world he currently lives in. Oh, and Silas is special too. He “feels” stuff… internally, and is issued pills for it though they don’t have any effect on him. Externally, however, it’s grounds for being removed from The Collective—the name of the “perfect society” he lives in—and placed in an underground compound known as “The Den” for reprogramming (death). So, of the five senses, touch—person-to-person contact—has been outlawed. I’m not really sure why that is. The movie doesn’t clarify it all the way, it mostly glosses over this notion—but you sort of just have to go with it.
A bit of a new “wrinkle” for a dystopian sci-fi flick is introduced here in that this “perfect society” allows art, actual artistic expression like visual art, classical music (how did it out survive EDM and Hip-Pop?) and literature—and Silas just so happens to be an illustrator at a company that produces books, digitally of course. Now if you have read any totalitarian manifesto from the last 200 years, you would know that letting the proletariat have a form of release is risky business. But since everyone is on the pill?, or indoctrinated?, there’s really no need to be concerned. Only Equals is a movie and things can’t stay the same forever. There has to be some kind of shake-up of the main character’s world, an inciting incident if you will. But before that can happen, we are introduced to Nia (Kristen Stewart, Anesthesia) who is white. But her name’s origin is Swahili which when translated to English means “purpose.” How a film so void of Africans (and African-Americans) commits such a faux pas beats me. I don’t know, I guess that’s what happens when names sound cool…
So Silas (solace) and Nia (purpose)—who’s a writer, and employed at the same company as Silas—just so happen to witness a white man commit suicide while looking out of the window at work one day, and from a simple thumb twitch on Nia’s part, Silas is able to infer that what he’s been “feeling” for so long that there’s another person—a woman!—who “feels” exactly what he’s been “feeling.” And just like that, he’s smitten. I mean, yeah, he’s looked at her from across the conference table at work a few times, and has seen her scanning her wrist (a very nice touch!) upon entering various buildings and what not, but him suddenly having the hots for her is a bit alarming. If Silas wasn’t so hot his damn self, anyone noticing his change of character would alert the authorities pronto because son does some legendary stalking of Nia following their meet-cute. The movie even goes out of its way to insert a “uhh-could-you-not-follow-so-closely-behind-me-bro!” scene just to ease any discomfort the audience might have in watching Silas’s behavior—and to give Nia some agency, because she was coming off very flat up to that point.
And I think it was about here that the movie lifted me up into outer space—at about the 18-minute mark, or so. For the life of me I thought that when I watched the trailer awhile back I would be going to see a science fiction thriller, not a love story. Equals basically deep-sixes everything it had going for it and became the Nicholas & Kristen Show with some very claustrophobic close-ups for the rest of its run-time. (Off the record: Silas is the worst boyfriend ever! for what he allows to happen to Nia.)
Look, I like Kristen Stewart. Other than the director, she was my main reason for going to see this film, so I wasn’t put off by seeing her face all over the movie screen. But ever since she did Clouds of Sils Maria, she has been picking some really odd films to be in. It’s like she’s content being the co-star rather than the lead. I definitely think she’s challenging herself but some of these stories are suspect… And Drake, he’s a good dude. His intentions are well, but this time around things are just a little too contrived for me.
Truthfully speaking, if there were cameras or cell phones in this film (society) the third act of this movie wouldn’t be possible. The way in which the scenes stack up would be null and void. I have to reiterate that because of how preposterous the story became—and to keep with the theme of this blog post.
Another round of questions: how the f**k did Nia get back into Silas’s apartment? Why is Nia able to successfully commit a B & E (Breaking and Entering) without it alerting the authorities? At this point she’s a fugitive from the law in a society where everyone is chipped and therefore should be monitored, so how is she even able to make it back to Silas’s apartment in the first place? Shouldn’t there be guards posted at Silas’s front door, and guards posted at her home and job, and any other place she would normally go? In the same movie universe there are sleek, slide-away appliances, digital work-stations, jumbo news monitors, magic pills and adhesives but no Instagram, no T-Mobile, no GMail, or drones, or eye in the sky apparatus, or SWAT Team? On top of this, a random day-player mic checks that The Collective has cured cancer, the common cold, and S.O.S. (“Switched On Syndrome”; the movie’s made up disease for what Silas has that makes him “feel” which The Collective later develops a cure for yet Silas is able to shake off its potency) but excuse me, umm… eugenics? Uh, would you mind telling us about that one? What’s even freakier is that the guy who tells us what The Collective has gotten rid of is a person of color. Yikes!
So, yeah, all we’re really stuck with here is a movie romance. And you know how that ish goes: what’s your favorite scary movie, no what’s your favorite scary movie? lines of dialogue, and other hard-hitting questions like, “So where’d you grow up?” and “Are you a Democrat or a Libertarian? — God, not a Republican. Anything but a Republican.” And then the sex. You know the sex. We’ve all seen it: that PG-13 drivel that’s rife with mouth open, over-the-top heavy breathing and simultaneous orgasms… And why is it always the guy who turns into a philosopher for the pillow talk afterwards? Silas is a mute before then. But once he jumps into the sack with Nia, two movie-sex montages later, he’s ready to give a dissertation on love and all of its dynamics… Man, movie pussy is magic.
Equals hands its test in early. It was so hell-bent on giving us Romeo & Juliet in the future that it forgot to entertain us living here in the present with the world it had established. John Guleserian’s (cinematographer, Breathe In) visuals are a joy to look at. Too bad there isn’t a story to go along with them. The spotlight of blame shines bright on you Nathan Parker (screenwriter, Blitz) and you too Drake Doremus… And all of this talk about an all-female led Ghostbusters reboot and originality, and here we have a promising, young, American filmmaker doing his send up to Shakespeare. Maybe it’s me but I can’t help but feel like Doremus explores this type of terrain in all of his movies—unless he’s a romantic, then I sincerely apologize.
Equals isn’t a bad movie, not an intentionally bad movie… But it’s not a good one either. Sure, it’s crafted well. I’ve never had to look in all four corners of the frame to see a character’s face before. But a story like this comes a dime a dozen. Don’t believe me just watch: THX 1138 (Equals seems like an updated version IMHO), Comet, Wristcutters: A Love Story, The Hunger Games Trilogy (tetralogy), The Divergent Series (tetralogy), The 5th Wave, Wall-E, The Host, The Giver, The Lobster, The Island, Z for Zachariah (lots of religious undertones), The Matrix (the OG), V for Vendetta (for the counterculture anarchist in you), The Twilight Series (pentalogy; somewhat), Oblivion, In Time, Logan’s Run, Blade Runner (the granddaddy of them all), Southland Tales (horrible; don’t ever watch this movie), Never Let Me Go, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for all you Hipsters out there), Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Alphaville, Sleeper (yes, even Woody Allen)—and many, many more. I only say this much because I like Doremus and I want to see more from him. I’m tellin’ ya, the kid has a great eye, and I have a hunch he’s sharper than most. I just don’t see the need to keep going back to the well for Romance.
And as for genre films, aren’t we (brown people and Asians) owed one by now? Zombies, vampires, dystopian romance, evil witches & fairy godmothers, post-apocalyptic automobile societies, aliens, kaijū—yes, we may have missed the boat on these but there has to be some way, some new angle possibly for us to watch our big screen avatars don makeup and funny-looking costumes and prance about some made-up, fantastical world. A film like Leprechaun in the Hood exists but there’s radio silence upon the mention of an all person of color sci-fi epic/drama. Come on, Hollywood. All we’re asking for is just one, decent sci-fi ensemble film (or franchise) that’s front loaded with brown, black and Asian talent. And not one of those dinky Denzel Book of Eli movies either. Now is that too much to ask for in 2016? It can’t really be, really…? I mean, just look at the Fast and the Furious. I know you hate to admit it but that franchise uses a lot of the talent I just mentioned—even women! And they’re on movie number eight last I time I checked. And the filmmakers behind that series don’t discriminate, especially when there’s the strong possibility of making a shit-ton of money.
Equals – 2 out of 5 stars
Genre: Science fiction; Romance
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Nicholas Hoult, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, David Selby, Bel Powley
Director: Drake Doremus
Producer(s): Michael Pruss, Chip Diggins, Ann Ruark, Michael Schaefer, Ridley Scott, Jay Stern
Screenwriter: Nathan Parker; story by Drake Doremus
Released: 07/15/2016; Runtime (in minutes) 101; MPAA Rating: PG-13
“It is not by muscle, speed, or physical dexterity that great things are achieved, but by reflection, force of character, and judgment.” ― Marcus Tullius Cicero
“…life as we live it is a battlefield where envy is sharp and slanders fly thick and fast.” – Horace, Satire 3
I’m back from a much needed vacay… Did ya miss me? Probably not… Anyhoo, the battery’s charged and now it’s full steam ahead.
“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. ” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” — Seneca
“A person is born with feelings of envy and hate. If he gives way to them, they will lead him to violence and crime, and any sense of loyalty and good faith will be abandoned.” — Xun Zi