Thursday, April 21, 2016

Tribeca ’16: Equals

In the future, employee fraternization will be strictly forbidden. The entire world will be a “safe place” because all emotions will be “switched-off” at birth. Unfortunately, Silas has contracted “Switched-On Syndrome,” or “the Bug.” As a result, he has it bad for his co-worker, whom he also suspects is similarly afflicted. All love is forbidden and hurts like the dickens in Drake Doremus’s Equals (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Instead of Big Brother, the drones of this Collective are constantly inundated with PSAs designed to maintain public order. Silas has what still ought to be a cool job working as an illustrator, but he constantly asks Nia unnecessary questions about her stories. That makes her uncomfortable, perhaps too uncomfortable. It turns out Nia is indeed a “hider,” who secretly tries to control her SOS symptoms to avoid being ostracized like Silas, who admitted Maoist-style to his stage-one condition.

Silas and Nia soon commence a reckless, highly illegal love affair. He also gets some understanding and practical advice from an underground support group led by Jonas and Bess. The latter will be especially handy to know, since she is a hider working at the Collective’s dreaded Health and Safety Department. Inevitably, Silas and Nia are discovered, at which point Equals becomes a dystopian riff on Romeo & Juliet.

Granted, we have seen this severe future before, but maybe we need to see it again, because we keep forgetting how much freedom we sacrifice when we demand absolute safety from the government. The Switched-Off science of Equals might be speculative, but its implications are already with us. Doremus and his location scouts also help freshen things up with some strikingly neo-futuristic backdrops, including the I.M. Pei designed Miho Museum in Japan and Singapore’s Marina Barrage and Henderson Wave Bridge. If Kristen Stewart fans start making Equals pilgrimages, they might actually learn a little something about modernist architecture and Asian art.

Of course, probably Doremus’ most inspired strategic decision was casting Stewart and Nicholas Hoult as a couple trying to hide their emotions. Presumably, his direction amounted to “be yourselves.” They look perfect together, as if you could stick them on a dystopian wedding cake in World on a Wire or Gattica. Fortunately, Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver are reliably engaging as Jonas and Bess. Evidently, when an all-powerful collective starts bleaching the human spirit you can still trust Australians. Unfortunately, Claudia Kim is ridiculously under-employed as the PSA voice of the Collective.

In retrospect, the relative reserve of Doremus’s conclusion is rather fitting, even if the optimism is forced. Regardless, it is a stylish and arguably somewhat timely return to the tightly regimented future 1984 and Metropolis warned of decades ago. Recommended for fans of anti-utopian and relationship-driven science fiction, Equals screens again this afternoon (4/21), as a Viewpoints selection of the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.