Sunday, May 27, 2018

A24 A-to-Z: #37. "Equals" (2016)

Scene from Equals
In case you didn't know, A24 is one of the great purveyors of modern cinema. Since 2013, the studio has found a way to innovate independent cinema by turning each release into an event. As a result, A24 A-to-Z will be an ongoing series that looks at every release from the studio by analyzing its production history, release, criticisms, and any awards attention that it might've received. Join me on a quest to explore the modern heroes of cinema by exploring every hit and miss that comes with that magnificent logo. They may not all be great, but they more than make A24 what it is and what it will hopefully continue to be for ears to come.

Released: July 15, 2016 
Release Number: 37
Directed By: Drake Doremus
Starring: Nicholas Hoult, Kristen Stewart, Vernetta Lopez
Plot: In an emotionless utopia, two people fall in love when they regain their feelings from a mysterious disease, causing tensions between them and their society.

The summer season for A24 usually was the time when things got their weirdest. It was a time to reach out to audiences looking for weird alternatives to blockbuster, such as the highly acclaimed farting corpse movie Swiss Army Man. It was also a time when films like director Drake Doremus' Equals could be released and find an alternative for those wanting a different kind of romance. It's one built on being cold and distant, featuring a post-Twilight Kristen Stewart in the lead role. While the film may be far from the studio's most successful film, it reflected a shift towards sci-fi film making that was daring in its quiet nuance as well as a story that challenged the form of what a romance could possibly be. It wasn't their most acclaimed, but it was another notch in just how diverse their annual output could be.

Doremus is a filmmaker who doesn't see the medium as telling a story, but more in relation to how he sees himself at any given moment. Having had success with Like Crazy and Breathe In, he found himself attracted to the idea of how people relate to modern technology. Does it make people more impersonal, or does it connect each other in significant ways? It's the central struggle of Equals as depicted in a rare utopian sci-fi movie. Everything is perfect until two people, Stewart and Hoult, find themselves to have a rare disease that causes them to feel emotions. They break the regulated code that everyone else feels and does their best to form a deeper relationship. While Doremus isn't credited as the screenwriter, he is given story credit, suggesting that this was very personal to him.

He was attracted to Stewart and Hoult for a few reasons. Among the most important belief was that their compatibility made it difficult to cast any other actor in either role. Even if one of them backed out, he couldn't make the film with the other. It was a chemistry that stemmed from their personal experiences. The first time they met for the film involved them rehearsing while Hoult secretly stole cheese from Stewart's kitchen. The two would form a close connection thanks to their general love of performing various activities like go-kart racing after filming wrapped. They had a close bond as a result and brought their energy to the film. Doremus would say of Stewart that she always gave 110% and enjoyed working with her.

With a specific look in mind, Doremus sought to shoot somewhere with cold and calculated architecture. He searched the globe until he landed in Japan and Singapore, where the film would take place. The film started production in August of 2014. Stewart and Hoult would note how much nicer people are, and believed that the experience produced a fruitful experience. The only major controversy came when Alana Morshead, the director's daughter, was accused by Abby O'Sullivan of sharing costume design credit when her contribution was insignificant. The film had 750 effects shot, which helped to give the director a deeper appreciation for the special effects community. It was tough for him to work on because he is a self-proclaimed impatient man. Still, it got done with satisfied results.

By September 2014, the first image was released as it began to play film festivals. During its run at the Cannes Film Festival of 2015, it was sold to 35 territories. It would continue to play other film festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the Venice Film Festival . By October, A24 came on board with distribution rights. The film would receive an additional release through the DirecTV division. Together, they released the film in May of 2016 while earning $2 million at the box office. It was a modest success with all things considered, but fell far below the general success pattern of other recent A24 films like The Lobster and Green Room. In that sense, it was one of the rare A24 failures of 2016, which would be an overall great year for the studio critically and financially. It didn't do any better than Hoult's previous work with A24, Dark Places, which fared a little better.

The film didn't do much better with critics, earning a 35% on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. It was one of the lowest rated for the studio. Matt Zoeller Seitz of RogerEbert . com lead the general consensus when he said that "This is a heartfelt film, often brilliantly directed, but quite thin in terms of vision." Likewise, Scott Marks of San Diego Reader reflected its general boredom, believing that "The DVD box should warn prospective buyers that its contents could cause drowsiness." Sarah Marrs of Lainey Gossip reflected a more kind approach, which was that "Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart are INSANELY BEAUTIFUL. You could watch this on mute and just be struck by the visuals, even if Doremus's hand-held camerawork doesn't make a ton of sense-at least he shows his stars off to advantage." Overall though, it was a film that fell under the radars of even devoted fans of Stewart and Hoult. 

Equals wasn't the equal of A24's recent run of incredible films. While it was creative and took a different look at romance, audiences tended to disagree with how effective it truly was. It was an odd turn of events given that Stewart's general output had been acclaimed up to that point, and the chemistry between her and Hoult were still the highlight of the film. With all of that said, the film faded into obscurity in the short time after its release. The same could be said of the next film on the list, which pitted Oscar-nominee Ellen Page into a dystopian scenario that could make for a perfect companion piece in terms of tonal differences. Into the Forest may have not been a hit, but it was another one of those odd summer delights that the studio loved to release.

Up Next: Into the Forest (2016)

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