At times, it can feel like “Evolution” isn’t moving at all. The camera lingers on each gooey detail for a little too long, the characters are slow to react and the story takes its time coming together. At only 81 minutes, you’d think the movie moves at a steady clip. It doesn’t. Having started as an editor, director Lucile Hadzihalilovic engineers every shot to be as gut-churning and ponderous as possible. With the steely eye of her cinematographer Manuel Dacosse. “Evolution” can sometimes feel unbearably sick.
But that’s the point of body horror, the visceral thrill of transformation and death. Hadzihalilovic taps into this spirit but puts a twist on it. “Evolution” isn’t so much about death as it is life. It opens in the womb of the world, the ocean. There, the barely pubescent Nicholas (Max Brebant) finds the corpse of a young boy, a starfish crawling on his body. He runs to tell Mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), only to hear her say that no corpse exists. Nicholas’ suspicions about his home, an island inhabited only by young boys and older women, begin to mount. When he’s taken to an underground complex for a mysterious medical procedure, those suspicions are confirmed.
If that premise raises questions for you, you’d best make peace with them. “Evolution” answers few, if any of them. What answers it does provide only raise more questions. Dacosse’s sickly color palette and eye for darkness amplifies those reveals. What’s laudable is how unsettling every moment is whether or not it’s violent or disgusting. Though violent and disgusting moments are here in spades. Truthfully, when those moments hit, it’s hard to tell what’s going on. The shadows are heavy, and the context is barely explained.
This also works in the movie’s favor. Nicholas is just hitting puberty when “Evolution” starts, and he knows just as much as viewers do. Here are the basics: only women and children live on the island, they eat one type of food (a green, vaguely aquatic sludge), and the Mothers gather on the beach at night for some reason. From beginning to end, you know just as much about these things as Nicholas does, not much.
Sometimes, it feels self-consciously obscure, deliberately side stepping answers to no narrative end. This becomes especially clear in the movie’s last stretch. So much happens and so little of it is explained that it feels alienating, even if the lingering final shot beautifully grounds what came before it. In the end, this is a small complaint. From top-to-bottom, “Evolution” is a stomach-churning opus. The only catch is that you have to be brave enough to look.