The film had its world premiere in the international competition section at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival. The film had its North American premiere in the Special Presentations programme at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. The film was released on May 26, 2016 through DirecTV Cinema prior to opening in a limited release on July 15 by A24.
In a futuristic dystopian utopia, citizens, known as "members" live under the Collective, the legislative body who monitor the people's actions. Citizens are mentally stabilized and all emotions and most illnesses are eradicated, with emotion and sexual activity contrary to the society's rules, and conception is through artificial insemination via a conception summons.
Silas, a citizen, works as an illustrator for Atmos. Returning home one night, he sees two citizens detained by officials and is reminded of a purported epidemic of Switched-On Syndrome (SOS), a multi-stage "disease" that restores human emotions. Sufferers who do not commit suicide progress to stage four and are detained in the dreaded Defective Emotional Neuropathy Facility (the DEN), the Collective's institution, which no one ever leaves. The next day at work a suicidal employee jumps to his death and the emotionless workers coldly analyze the moment. Silas is the only group member to notice fellow worker Nia having an emotional reaction. Later in a team meeting, he again sees Nia expression betray emotion.
During the course of the next day, Silas becomes distracted during a conference at Atmos, falls asleep more often, and experiences a nightmare for the first time. He goes for a check up and is befriended by an official named Jonas with stage 2 SOS. Silas is diagnosed with Stage 1 SOS and is given a prescription. Nevertheless, Silas progressively worsens, as his drawings become emotional and his interest in Nia grows. One day, he follows Nia into the bathroom and comforts her. She reveals that she has had SOS for over a year, hiding it to avoid discovery and ostracization. He kisses her, but hears Leonard, the company manager, in the bathroom and converses with him. Leonard spots Nia's workstation powered on and reveals that he has been monitoring Silas. Silas decides to get a job separate from Nia in a gardening section.
Leonard introduces Silas's replacement, Dominic, to Nia the next day. Nia, during a conversation with Dominic, suffers a slight anxiety attack during lunch break. At night while picking up their prescriptions Jonas invites Silas for a walk, and then discloses that he is part of a secret support group and offers help. He decides to go, where he meets fellow members Bess, Peter, Thomas, Gil, Max and Alice and learns that the DEN's patients half of the time, mostly through encouragement, commit suicide. Nia then shows up at his apartment and they have sex, agreeing to spend more time there. Thereafter, the Ashby ENI cure for SOS is announced and successfully created. Scared, the two decide to go to the Peninsula, a secluded, primitive section of land, to the bewildered support of the group, who warn them to never return if successful. Jonas gives Silas instructions to ask for Oliver, a pilot, to fly him to the Peninsula. Silas and Nia make plans to go to Wellington, the closest location towards the border, on Saturday. However, Nia gets a conception summons and goes to the clinic, where she discovers that she is pregnant and so is taken to the DEN.
In an almost panic Silas visits Jonas about the situation, who tells him to stay calm and go back home. Depressed, Silas goes home and becomes saddened. Bess, upon hearing from Jonas and seeing that Nia was Stage 4, takes her to a room with Jonas and Max and brief Nia on a deceased Stage 3 SOS patient, Eva. They then help her to fake her death by switching identities implants with Eva, so that Eva is considered alive and Nia is considered dead. She is successful and leaves the DEN but doesn't find Silas at his apartment. Meanwhile, Silas finds out that Bess, Jonas and Gilead were betrayed by Max, and were given the cure. He goes to the DEN where they tell him Nia died and so he contemplates suicide on a roof top, but gets the cure instead. He returns to his apartment and finds Nia alive and that his treatment for SOS was in vain. He remembers her, having loved her and their escape plan but doesn't remember feeling it. The next morning with Nia heartbroken they take the Wellington train. With some measure of empathy for her, and through the physical contact of holding her hand, Silas reveals the cure has not erased his feelings for Nia.
In October 2013, it was revealed that Drake Doremus would be directing the film, with Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult starring. In June 2014, Guy Pearce joined the film, also announcing the screenplay of the film was written by Nathan Parker, with Ridley Scott, Michael Schaefer, Ann Ruark, and Jay Stern producing, while Chip Diggins will produce under Route One, while Mike Pruss, Lee Jea Woo, Choi Pyung Ho and Russell Levine will executive produce. In July 2014, Kate Lyn Sheil, Aurora Perrineau, and Jacki Weaver, joined the cast of the film. Initially, the project was set up at Indian Paintbrush.
Doremus, Stewart, Hoult, and producer Michael Pruss attended a press conference in Tokyo on August 2, 2014 to announce the start of the film. Principal photography began on August 4, 2014 in Japan and continued until August 28, after which production moved to Singapore for another three weeks. Filming wrapped in Singapore on September 26, 2014.
In August 2016 Abby O’Sullivan protested the fact that she had to share costume design credit with Alana Morshead, Doremus' girlfriend who had previously worked as an actress and stylist and was not involved in the manufacturing or production duties involved with the film.
In September 2014, the first image from the film was released. Equals was sold by Mister Smith Entertainment to over 35 territories for distribution at Marché du Film during the Cannes Film Festival. On July 29, 2015, it was announced that Equals was selected to compete for the Golden Lion at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival and had its world premiere on September 5. On August 18, 2015, it was announced the film was selected to have its North American premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. On October 16, 2015, it was announced A24 Films alongside DirecTV Cinema had acquired the distribution rights of the film. The film was released on DirecTV Cinema on May 26, 2016, before opening in a limited release on July 15, 2016.
The film has received mixed reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes currently gives the film a rating of 32% based on 66 reviews with a weighted average score of 5/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Equals is a treat for the eyes, but its futuristic aesthetic isn't enough to make up for its plodding pace and aimlessly derivative story." Metacritic assigned the film a normalized score of 43 out of 100, based on 27 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews ".
Peter Debruge of Variety, giving the film a positive review, said "Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult play citizens living in an emotion-free future who struggle to understand the attraction they feel for one another in this stylish, if simplistic sci-fi romance." While, IndieWire gave the film a C-, writing that "the real wonder and marvel and breathless mystery of Equals may be that something so dazzlingly white can be so very dull."