In Drake Doremus’ chilly new science fiction film Equals, Silas (Nicholas Hoult) and Nia (Kristen Stewart) star as star-crossed lovers with a familiar problem: they live in a future world that’s supposedly fixed all its problems by eradicating emotion. Their society has found a biological trigger to shut down human feeling, creating cold, placid, orderly communities where the people resemble mildly judgmental robots. Unfortunately for Silas and Nia, they both have “switched-on syndrome,” a disease that bypasses their genetic programming. Secretly, they can still feel things, including pleasure at touching each other, and concern about the rash of suicides in their supposedly utopian community. As Doremus’ film progresses, they feel the fear of being discovered, and the intense shock of first love.
They should also be feeling déjà vu. Stories about worlds where emotions have been banned have been around for nearly a century, and they keep finding new forms, from the classic satire of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to Lois Lowry’s child-sized version of the trope in The Giver to the slick gun-fu action movie Equilibrium. Equals adds some new set dressing, but it’s still fundamentally identical to some of the works that inspired it. But given the increasingly furious, emotional tone of public discourse in 2016 — given that absolutely every disagreement, no matter how minor, is an excuse for people to scream invectively at each other — the junky, fast-paced, fury-driven futures of District 9 or the Purge movies seem like a much more likely outcome for our world than a mechanistic future where love is forbidden and people walk around in spotless white outfits, living sterile blank lives. Why are we still afraid of our emotions dying, when our emotions keep flaring? Why do speculative writers keep returning to these concerns about an emotionless future?
Cold-dystopia futures have gone through several eras, and several specific inspirations. Equals closely resembles its progenitors, but it comes from a different impulse than they did, and a different mindset. The earliest writers musing over banned emotions were reactionaries who were afraid people were losing specific freedoms to specific political movements. And several of them struck back with pointed satire, musing over what the ruling class might try to take away from humanity next.
The trend goes back at least as far as 1920 and Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, a proud Bolshevik who distanced himself from his party after the Russian revolution, over fears that the country's new leadership was trending toward conformity, sterility, and disapproval of the arts. His seminal novel We (written and banned in 1920, first published in America in 1924) is generally credited with inventing the dystopian genre, and it certainly kicks off some of the ideas seen in Equals: a state run by ruthless logic, with human homogeneity and duty to the state as the highest ideals. The characters in We have numbers for names, and they live in a "mathematically faultless happiness," operating according to strict timetables for work, leisure, and even sex. The "primitive state of freedom" and concepts like individual attachment and feeling for anything other than the state are dismissed as beneath contempt.
British writer Aldous Huxley denied that he took any inspiration from Zamyatin for 1932's Brave New World, though there has been some scholarly debate on the matter. Huxley claims he was satirizing H.G. Wells' utopian novels instead, but he was also reacting to the Industrial Revolution, and his anxieties about the social upheaval caused by an increasingly mechanized society. In Brave New World, the lower classes are drugged and conditioned into thoughtless cooperation. Adoration for Henry Ford's assembly line has replaced religion. Love, marriage, and family are considered abominations. Huxley's take on the cold future is a little unusual: his characters are allowed feelings, as long as they're the right feelings. Instead of mathematical perfection, they're taught to love hedonism, largely because it shuts down individual attachment or discontent with a rigged system.
And Zamyatin and Huxley had plenty of followers who were worried about their own eras, and projecting the dooms that might follow. George Orwell's 1984, about a fascist future with "no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life," was based on the author's fears about where communism would lead. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 came out of his concerns over book-burning and McCarthyism, and the suggestion that it was America's duty to repress inflammatory, controversial, or simply unworthy ideas. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale takes her dissatisfaction with social inequality for women to an extreme point, in a post-war future where the government doles out the few fertile women to the elite as brood mares, and builds a society around controlling how people feel about reproductive rights and women's duties to society.
But the primary inspiration for cold-future stories changed in the 1950s and 1960s, as anxieties over fascism and communism started to give way to anxieties about rapidly developing technology. Broadly speaking, any cultural anxiety about the future comes from a fear of rapid change, and how far it might go. When the space race began in the 1950s, American culture shifted sharply toward science fiction stories about malevolent aliens or cosmic catastrophe. And the more common computers became in the 1960s, the more science fiction worried that we might all eventually turn into computers ourselves. In the 1960s, Doctor Who introduced the Cybermen, alternate-Earth humanoids who'd replaced their weak human bodies with robotic ones, in the process streamlining their emotions into a ruthless will to eliminate weakness. The original Star Trek introduced Vulcans, an entire race who repressed all emotion in favor of logic, even though human passion usually proved more powerful and useful on the show. The citizens in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville are ruled by a sentient computer that has banned emotion; citizens are executed if they display any, and language is strictly monitored to eliminate words that might evoke feelings.
Some of that tech-threat concern from the 1960s continues up to the present, but it's mostly taken new forms. Films from 2001 to War Games to The Matrix to Transcendence worry about what happens if dispassionate, logic-driven computers get too much power. In these stories, humans aren't being forced to lose their humanity, they're just at risk of losing their lives to something with no humanity. An awful lot of modern tech-threat stories are just reskinned alien-threat stories, where the problem is how to fight an intellectually superior and utterly ruthless foe. (Usually, the answer is the same as it was for the original Captain Kirk in Star Trek: with impulsive passion and whatever crude weapon comes to hand.)
But the rare throwbacks to the earliest cold-future dystopian stories, like George Lucas' THX 1138, Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium, Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster, or Doremus' Equals, now feel like they're coming from another place entirely, like they're less concerned with expressing fears about changes in technology and government, and more concerned with personal alienation and the individual search for love. Doremus' own interviews about Equals backs up this theory: he's less focused on his emotionless society than with the tender way his protagonists, Nia and Silas, interact as they fall for each other. "As we evolve away from human contact through social media and online dating, is love necessary for human being to function and progress as a race?" he recently told The Hollywood Reporter. "I can see myself making more films that focus on human beings and how we date and find each other and fall in love and how constant the turnover is, like how you can just move and keep swiping."
That sounds like Equals is still playing out themes of technological anxiety — about whether people can form meaningful relationships in an age of speed-dating apps. And there's certainly some of that in the film, along with some familiar modernist fears that we're all just cogs in a machine, that being obsessed with work, productivity, and conformity makes us lose our individuality. But Equals is abstract about these issues, to the point where they don't particularly connect. The one thing it's specific and intense about is the power of skin-to-skin contact and private affection.
Virtually all of the emotionless-future stories since We feature some form of regimented control over affection. Humans might be invited to have plenty of sex as long as they avoid monogamy (in We and Brave New World), or forced to have sex only with state-selected partners (Handmaid's Tale), or denied sex altogether (THX 1138, Equilibrium, Equals). But regardless, these stories all worry that in the future, we won't get to choose our own meaningful forms of physical intimacy. And in most of these stories, freedom to choose a sexual partner almost immediately becomes freedom to fall in love, which is the ultimate act of rebellion. When We protagonist D-503 experiences jealousy, it's subversive because it implies that he no longer considers all citizens identical and interchangeable. When Winston Smith and Julia slip away for trysts in 1984, they're breaking the rules by taking something for themselves that doesn't belong to the all-observant, all-consuming state. And when Nia and Silas finally touch each other in Equals, they experience a rapture they can't get via conformity, compliance, or service to society. Intimacy and affection are considered dangerous to the state because they distract from unwavering devotion to an ideal.
And over and over, these stories about emotionless futures come down to the same thing: two people hooking up and experiencing passion for the first time in their lives. The idea of rediscovering love — not just for two people, but for an entire world that has lost it — is a great dramatic hook. It asks readers or viewers to remember their own earliest experiences with romance, and that initial youthful feeling of having discovered something fresh and new, of going someplace no one has gone before. Everyone who's experienced love can tap into that feeling of encountering it for the first time, and stories from 1984 to Equals manage to make relationships feel fresh again.
Dystopic stories about banned-emotion societies always read like cautionary tales, warning about how some current event or new change in the world is a slippery slope that could lead to a dark, inhuman place. And these stories always have a touch of wish-fulfillment fantasy to them, since they so often question whether it really would be a relief to be free of the burdens of choice, of messy and painful feelings like jealousy and anger and despair. They invite readers and viewers to imagine whether they'd be willing to discard all that emotion in order to live in a clean, orderly place like Doremus' vision of the future, where everyone wears clean clothes and eats clinical, pretty food and works in a bright, well-lit space with calm, competent people.
But ultimately, we probably return to these dystopias over and over to give ourselves a little twin thrill, from the horror of having passion forcibly removed from our lives, and the excitement of getting to rediscover it all over again. Whether the inciting force is communism or sexism or the negligible boogeyman of Tinder coming along to redefine how we date, the result is the same: these stories are meant to remind us of what we value in being human, and why even painful and uncontrolled emotions are better than none. Many of these stories end tragically for the protagonists, or at least for their ill-fated partners in passion — emotionless-future stories are often star-crossed lovers stories, and star-crossed lovers don't always make it out alive. But even the grimmest emotionless-future stories still have at least the hint of a sentimental core, suggesting that it's worth fighting an entire world just to experience an authentic moment between two people. As long as humanity values that concept, expect more stories like Equals, coming along every generation or so to try to fit an old story into a new form.