; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Are Aliens Our Emotional Equals?

By Brandon Engel - There is something not quite right about the flatness and sterility displayed by the society in the new film Equals. Some critics are of the opinion that this unnerving sensation of the uncanny is a product of poor acting, shallow set-design and unambitious world-building. But this uneasiness could be due to something else entirely: when one sees other humans, there is an expectation of vividness, of a certain life-behind-the-eyes.

Human beings go to great lengths to anthropomorphize animals and inanimate objects, so it should be no surprise that to have actors and set designers deliberately drain a world of all emotion and personality could elicit a sense of subtly inhuman terror.

In Drake Doramus' film Equals, society has progressed--or perhaps regressed--to a point where emotions are deliberately “switched off” in order to maintain a peaceful existence. The main character of the film, played by Nicholas Hoult, slowly begins to realize that he is becoming "switched on," or beginning to feel emotions. He falls in love with Kristen Stewart, who plays a "hider," or a person who is feeling but hiding the fact under an emotionless veneer. The fine line between the intensity of new love and presenting a perfectly emotionless front to society makes up the majority of the film's tension, complemented by the film's electronic score and lingering close-ups on Hoult and Stewart's expressions.

The concept of a society that has traded violent emotions for a seeming utopia is far from new. In films like Kurt Wimmer's Equilibrium this was accomplished through medication, and in the Star Trek series the alien Vulcans seek to attain a logical and emotionless perfection. These societies and alien races are still viewed through our human emotions, however, and are given humanlike characteristics. There are numerous theories that guess at what causes humans to feel emotion, centering around three main stimuli: the brain, the body, and thoughts. Any of these three core areas are still human-centric: the brain and body are organized and will respond in specific ways due to the circumstances under which humans have evolved, and human thought processes are formed by human experiences.

Even though the evolutionary pressures and circumstances that have shaped an extraterrestrial--or even extradimensional--being are in all likelihood different than those that shaped life on Earth, there may still be some constants by which emotions similar to those humanity knows may be expressed. In Equals, two of the first emotions experienced are disgust at seeing death and wonder at experiencing love. In an alien life form, perhaps fear is still a common reaction to death. Perhaps among extradimensional or spiritual beings, death brings a reaction of joy akin to that felt at birth among humans. If these beings were to exist in a realm where actions lead to emotionless reactions, would that make them less alive to humanity? Which would be more familiar: a completely unfamiliar shape that can express love, or a completely human shape that processes like a computer program?

While the window through which humans seek to understand life may not be as wide as it could be, it still provides for a wide variety of ways to seek to improve knowledge. Stories are one of these: allowing people to step into the shoes of another and explore what-if situations. Equals, as flawed as it is, explores one of these. It serves to remind the audience that emotion is vital to the human experience, and of the power of experiencing something for the first time. Produced by A24 and DirecTV, Equals is slated for wide release on July 15, 2016.

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Alien Behavior

The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years

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