Kristen Stewart’s new movie Equals pictures a sterile, Gattaca- or Divergent-like future, of white and silver environs and white-on-white uniforms, in which the world’s remaining population after a cataclysmic event has been forbidden from expressing emotion or touching other humans. However, this is a movie from director Drake Doremus, whose best-known work, 2011’s Like Crazy, with Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin, explored the flourishing of young love and the tolls of long-distance relationships, so you know where this is headed as soon as you see Nicholas Hoult’s piercing blue eyes take notice of Kristen Stewart’s quivering hands. Yes, I’m talking about the steamiest small-space make-out sessions since Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano in that boiler room.
Okay, I just rewatched those make-out sessions from My So Called Life, and they really weren’t that erotic, or that plentiful — 1994 network television, go figure — but the tension was real. All that potent longing and unspoken desire. Just thinking about it can bring you back to that place when your body was coursing with hormones and sexual awakening: The rush that a single furtive glance could bring, or the brushing of flesh in the hallway.
It’s unclear whether the members of the Collective, who live in a tightly regulated compound doing science-y stuff, as opposed to the “Defects,” who’ve self-exiled to the wilds of “the Peninsula,” are just really good at suppressing their emotions, or if there’s actually a chemical reason for their robotic nature. In any case, a disease called Switched-On Syndrome (SOS) is sweeping through their ranks, causing the infected to shed a tear when, say, someone throws himself off the roof — usually for having late-stage SOS, the cure for which is electronic restraint in the Defective Emotional Neuropathy (DEN) facility and injection with inhibitors, or committing suicide.
We know that Hoult’s Silas is not like the others when he seems shocked — and shocked to feel shocked — by the aforementioned suicide, while those around him express their sympathies by saying they hope the Collective will be able to find someone to cover the dead man’s work. In that moment, he glances over to see Stewart’s Nia quietly quiver, then leave the room. They don’t speak; it’s not clear they’ve ever spoken outside of the division where they both work. Silas, nervous that something is amiss, goes to his doctor and discovers he is indeed in Stage 1 of SOS, which means he’s put on a drug regimen and allowed to stay in society. When a prying co-worker asks why he was gone, though, Nia steps in and vouches for him, preserving the secret of his diagnosis.
He begins to follow her around, and Doremus brings us into Silas’s first moments of awareness of another person through dreamy, sensual close-ups of Stewart’s exquisite features: her ear; her mouth; an entire movie screen filled with her eye, blue and rimmed in brown. Hoult’s chiseled cheekbones and icy-blue eye get the same treatment. If you ever wanted to know what Robert Pattinson and Jennifer Lawrence got to see in tender moments with their former lovers, this is your chance.
Finally, one night, as Silas walks behind Nia, she stops to confront him and tell him that if this continues she’ll report him to the authorities. He tells her he thinks that she’s like him, that she feels things, and if she wanted to report him she would have done so already. The next night, he follows her again, but this time into a stall of a unisex bathroom. The doors reach down to the floor, and in there they can have privacy. Nia confesses that she’d self-diagnosed as SOS a year and a half ago but chose to be a “hider,” deciding to discover her emotions while practicing enormous discipline to appear normal on the outside. Their rapport is instant; we’re watching two people talk freely, and connect with another person for the first time in their lives. They touch hands, and trace the contours of each other’s skin, their breathing growing deeper and faster as forbidden desire sets in, all set to an immersive, tension-filled score by Dustin O’Halloran and Sascha Ring. It is erotic as fuck, and that’s even before their first kiss, which carries with it the explosive energy of two people who’ve never known the feeling of another person’s lips upon theirs.
Every kiss in this movie is deserving of the MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss, from that first illicit bathroom encounter through each progressively less-inhibited make-out session thereafter, culminating in most sensual sex scene in recent memory, without a single explicit image. Stewart and Hoult have chemistry so strong you can feel it through the screen, but what’s so remarkable about their scenes together is how they and Doremus are able to convey a connection that goes beyond the physical; it’s about the discovery and yearning between two people who’d thought for their whole lives they were alone in this world. It’s about love. And it’s beautiful to hear them talk about experiencing emotions they’d never known existed. “I could never imagine what love felt like,” says Silas. “It’s like a tornado going around.” “It’s like giving,” says Nia. “I want you to just take everything from me.” “I want to run,” says Silas, as he stays put, transfixed in her eyes.
There are clear Philip K. Dick influences in the story, which screenwriter Nathan Parker based on a short story of Doremus’s, but I saw far many more shades of Romeo and Juliet, the myth of Orpheus, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This is the story of passion made criminal and star-crossed lovers, of the perils of impatience, and of how the extreme joy and pain of really feeling can sometimes be too much to bear. And it is, above all, the sexiest Kristen Stewart or Nicholas Hoult has ever been onscreen. If you don’t leave the theater wanting to find someone to make out with immediately, maybe you’re the one who belongs with the Collective.