The French sci-fi horror Evolution is too deliberately mysterious & quietly still to appeal to a wide audience. If I had to boil my take on the film down to a single adjective it’d be “stubborn.” Evolution presents a cold, discomforting world in which children are put in danger for a supernatural purpose, a circumstance the film has no interest in explaining, only for the camera to quietly, clinically stare at their unlikely predicament. Anyone who might have complained that the obscured, supernatural terrors of 2016’s flagship horror breakout The Witch were too loosely defined & uneager to entertain would cry themselves to sleep watching what director Lucile Hadžihalilović has carefully constructed here. For anyone with a little patience in the way they approach densely puzzling horror cinema with unconventional payoffs, however, it’s an eerie submersion in a stubbornly confounding nightmare, a rare kind of disorientation that’s entirely unfamiliar to the world we live in.
Evolution is a sort of menacing fairy tale about a small island of adult women caring for & grooming young boys for a mysterious purpose. One of the boys slowly gets wise that this false paradise isn’t what it seems to be on the surface. It’s a conspiracy theory ignited by the discovery of a dead body with a starfish attached to its belly and the growing suspicion that the woman who feeds & houses him isn’t actually his mother. Much like the audience, this young child-in-peril protagonist never gets clear answers on what exactly is happening in this nightmare realm of vague menace. What follows is a dreamlike body horror that touches on pregnancy anxiety, Body Snatchers paranoia, and the psychedelic nature imagery of Phase IV slowed down to a glacial whisper. Evolution‘s poorly lit operation rooms, endless stacks of specimen jars, and religious reverence for starfish imagery amount to a strangely abstracted art piece, one with an unnerving refusal to provide easy answers for the questions its imagery raises.
Outside the weightless underwater voids of the film’s starfish habitats, Evolution is largely an exercise in clinical stillness. The film effortlessly crafts memorably horrifying imagery at every turn, but stubbornly lingers on each visual achievement for an uncomfortably long time. As an art piece it’s begging to be dissected & rearranged for a fan edit music video (a couple on-the-nose suggestions might be a down-tempo cover of Bikini Kill’s “Star Bellied Boy” or a trip hop remix of a song from the animated version of Dr. Suess’s “The Sneetches”). As a film, it’s a strange experience, one that’s consistently fascinating, but also deliberately unsatisfying in a conventional sense. I’m not sure I could heartily recommend Evolution to the world at large, because it requires an open & patient kind of temperament not all audiences can command. If you’re in the right mood for this kind of open-ended obfuscation, though, its low-key pleasures can be downright haunting in a strikingly beautiful way.