Nightmares don’t always make sense. In sleep, our brains forgo the cohesive narrative in favor of unsettling images and creeping feelings of dread. Such is the story of Evolution, a film that oozes with Cronenberg-esque flashes of body horror visuals, but doesn’t necessarily feel the need to explain itself to its audience.
It all takes place on a remote French island that’s characterized by sickly pale white buildings, dark black volcanic rock, and the ever evasive endless sea. Inhabited with nothing but young boys and fully grown women, one of the kids, Nicolas, is repeatedly told by his mother that he is unwell, despite the fact that he appears perfectly healthy. She feeds him black droplets from a strange unmarked bottle, forces him to go to bed early, and then sneaks out of the house herself to perform some sort of strange aquatic ritual alongside the rest of the otherworldly women of the village. Clearly, something is being kept from Nicolas, but how is a young boy supposed to uncover the truth about the adults in his town when the only available aids are children that are just as young as he?
One day, while swimming in the ocean, Nicolas spots a drowned boy with a starfish on his belly, and runs home to tell his mother what he’s seen. To his dismay, his mom merely writes his horrific sighting off as a delusion brought on by the water, and tells him that he must be mistaken.
It isn’t long before Nicolas begins to realize that he isn’t the only one being fed possible falsities, as he and every other boy in his village are all hospitalized and treated for their supposed illnesses. They are told that they are sick because their bodies are changing, that it’s all just a natural part of growing up, but as time goes on and their conditions worsen, the boys can’t shake the feeling that the women who claim to be their guardians are prepping them for something much more radical than the dramatic shift into adulthood.
When their medical procedures start to resemble experiments more so than proper healthcare, and the boys begin mysteriously vanishing from the premises, Nicolas takes it upon himself to search for answers. However, to his horror, Nicolas soon discovers that what secrets he excavates from the dampened depths of this medical prison may be much more frightening than just being left in the dark.
The highly anticipated follow-up to Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s first feature length film Innocence, which was released over a decade ago, Evolution is a very quiet movie that features little dialogue, but drips with tension and moody aesthetics. Just as it is set mainly in and around the sea, there is a constant feeling of secrecy buried deep below that is slowly bubbling and making its way toward the surface.
Although as viewers, we tend to try to assert what we’re seeing in a grounded and structural reality, Hadzihalilovic never quite makes a definite distinction about whether what we’re watching is actually based in the real world, or if it’s all just one long dream.
The only thing that’s for certain is that this visionary director has created a wholly immersive and strikingly haunting piece of art; one that pulls its viewers down underneath the wave of reason, and engulfs them in a surreal, trippy and exhilarating feeling of collective effervescence, shared by all inside of the theater. In a way, for a brief period of time, it’s as if everyone watching the movie together is inside of the same dream.
Evolution is a stunning and unique coming-of-age film that is just as mesmerizing as it is terrifying, about a boy being thrown into the throes of adulthood, just as he simultaneously evolves into a creature of the sea. The fear and discomfort that the boys feel is palpable, and it’s a feeling that stays with the viewer long after the picture has ended. Beautifully shot, superbly acted, and endlessly enthralling – this one isn’t to be missed. See it in theater, with the lights down low, and plunge into the dark fantasy world that Hadzihalilovic has created. Her newest feature was worth the wait.