Almost all of Kristen Stewart’s post-Twilight career has played out like a rebuke to that intermittently enjoyable but mostly junky vampire-romance series. Not to its quality, necessarily, but to the way the franchise turns the Stewart persona into a drip with a series of tics in place of any moxie—or any personality at all. Outside of the Twilight-verse, Stewart’s persona has the consistency and sometimes the magnetism of a real movie star, and the chutzpah of an adventurous actor.
Equals brings Stewart’s charisma back to a genre framework—though its form of low-key science fiction is no longer the kind of genre material that actually gets wide exposure. The sci-fi premise is easy to digest, which is to say it wears its implausibility well: Sometime in the future, humanity has been drastically reduced following catastrophic armed conflicts, and the population has rebuilt itself in what may be a single, sterile-looking location without the nefarious influence of human emotion (there are shades of the Divergent series). Citizens are monitored for stirrings of emotion, classified as a disease called SOS (“switched-on syndrome”), and packed off for treatment when they exhibit troubling signs.
That’s the threat hanging over Silas (Nicholas Hoult), a young worker at a science journal who finds himself in the early stages of SOS. This switching on of his humanity allows him to take notice of Nia (Stewart), a coworker who he quickly suspects (and confirms) is a fellow “victim” of this ailment. They start to explore the beginnings of a relationship—and the notion that they’d rather not face the SOS treatments, which endgame with the encouragement of suicide.
There are complications from there, but much of Equals stays modest and quiet. It also unintentionally resembles fan-fiction: With the former Twilight star self-consciously attempting to avoid making eyes at initially rule-following X-Men refugee Hoult, the movie becomes a sort of Bella And The Beast. It plays out, though, like a more tasteful version of the recent spate of clunky YA adaptations. The forbidden chemistry Hoult and Stewart share is old-fashioned, and almost Victorian; they have to steal away from society for the merest of touches, every gesture fraught with emotion. Stewart’s twitchiness and utter sincerity both come in handy here, as she and Hoult generate a youthful electricity. They both have an open quality that makes their excitement, joy, and fear of an unexpected attraction readable and even touching.
As far as dystopian sci-fi, Equals can’t claim much innovation, even compared to the YA it outclasses. As with his thin but affecting Like Crazy, director Drake Doremus is better at putting across the emotions of the story than the story itself, which is pretty negligible. But Doremus does successfully turn those aforementioned gestures into big moments, with the help of frequent close-ups and the alternately washed out and shadowy tones of the cinematography. The production design, particularly of the functionally blank living units where the characters make their homes, is also cleanly impressive (though it’s hard not to notice how appealingly efficient its supposedly oppressive specs are).
The movie’s schematics make sense, in that slightly dopey science fiction way, but they also lack the true spark of inspiration that would make Equals more than a familiar but involving love story. The best sci-fi has ideas about what it means to be human; Equals eventually settles for restating what everyone already knows about that. It turns out, this movie is very much in favor of having emotions and loving people. For a good while, Stewart and Hoult make this feel like a stance, rather than an obvious default setting.