Dystopian love stories feel like they’re a dime a dozen. Especially in a post-Hunger Games world, the story of a boy and girl torn apart by a repressive futuristic society has evolved from a trend into a tired trope. However, those stories are usually aimed at the young adult crowd, hoping to cash in on teens who are easily charmed by fraught melodramas with a revolutionary twist.
In 2015, popular distributor A24 released a dystopian love story that resisted the temptation to go full teen romance, and the result is a haunting meditation on what it means to love and be loved.
The first thing you notice about Equals is just how sanitary it looks. All the environments and costumes are stark white, which reflects the society being portrayed. Under “The Collective,” people are zapped of their ability to process emotion. All reproduction is done through artificial insemination, and emotionless beings make for perfect workers.
The movie follows Silas (Nicholas Hoult), an illustrator, as he realizes the deadened state of those around him isn’t perfect. He starts having nightmares and is eventually diagnosed with SOS, “switched-on syndrome,” a disease that allows the “sufferer” to experience emotion again.
At work, he witnesses someone with SOS commit suicide. None of his coworkers react — except for one. Nia (Kristen Stewart) eventually tells him she’s had SOS for a year, but has resisted diagnosis and treatment because of the ostracization it leads to. The two fall in love and hatch a plan to escape their society.
While Equals stars two former child stars who have done their fair share of teen romances, this is a grown-up allegory for how capitalism can suck the soul out of people. It’s not the story of two lovers trying to seize the moment. It’s the story of two people trying to survive and feel something.
Like most dystopian romances, a parallel can be drawn between Equals and Romeo and Juliet. There are two people determined to be together despite the world doing everything it can to keep them apart, and the emotions of the characters are more important than the world they happen to occupy. In the emotional thesis of the film, Silas tries to explain his emotions to Nia, despite the concept being new to him.
“Outer space is where we’ll find the answers to why we’re here and where we come from. It’s like everyone’s… searching for these answers eight hundred million miles away and the truth is the answers are right in front of us.”
Even amid the blank white walls and authoritarian leadership that controls not only minds but souls, Equals can feel strangely familiar. In reality, falling in love is generally encouraged rather than forbidden, yet it still feels quietly rebellious to find joy in enjoying another person’s company, to be happy in the moment instead of producing or consuming anything. Equals exaggerates this rebellion and places it on a dystopian background, but the message is universal.
Equals is streaming on HBO Max.