This cinematic communing with the unknown finds something striking in its sublime science fiction story.
What is it that we think of when we think of science fiction in cinema? Is it built around witnessing incredible technology that challenges what is possible for our lives? Or perhaps it is about aliens that come crashing down to our planet and take control of society itself? These can be entertaining in their own ways, but there is also something more to the genre that can be rather reserved though no less riveting to behold. In writer-director Sofia Alaoui’s feature debut Animalia, this is made front and center. It takes the ordinary rhythms of life and injects it with a more surreal series of events when mysterious forces begin to warp the world as we know it to be. It is a film that is less interested in making these phenomena fully comprehensible than it is in embracing the eeriness of them. As a result, it is a work that punctuates the commonplace with the peculiar and leaves a lingering impression precisely because of its fluidity. Though its characters may not be as complex as one would hope in a story like this, the experience of letting it all wash over you proves to be quite wondrous.
Unaware she is on the precipice of her life and existence itself being forever changed is Itto. Played by a dynamic Oumaïma Barid, she is quite pregnant and spends most of her days in the luxury of the Moroccan upper class. Itto grew up in more humble means, but life with her wealthy husband Amine (Mehdi Dehbi) is defined by its distance from all of this. Though her often judgmental mother-in-law expects much of her while caring little for her feelings, the mother-to-be is still able to exercise enough control to stay behind at the enormous home alone while they go off elsewhere. This timing proves to be unfortunate as Itto is subsequently caught up in the epicenter of a mysterious event that begins to have an impact on the weather, the animals, and the very fabric of her reality. A state of emergency is declared, the military drives by the home, and people begin to flee from the area, but she still has little sense of what specifically is going on. As she remains cut off from Amine who seems to have found shelter elsewhere, there is a growing sense that it may not be safe to stay here. Thus, Itto sets off to find him through discovering something both more personal and ethereal at the same time.
Discussing anything beyond some of this initial introduction would do a disservice to the journey Alaoui takes us on which is a mesmerizing one that is impossible to fully pin down and all the better for it. As Itto goes from place to place, answers are hard to come by and there is a feeling that she is profoundly alone. Even when she encounters ordinary people who she hopes will be able to help her, the way she treats them speaks to a distance that has formed because of her newfound proximity to wealth. This light commentary on class connects to how it is that Itto has changed and what it is that she no longer understands about aspects of everyday life that are now becoming upended right before her eyes.
It is all approached with the same frankness as most everything else that is occurring around her. The disruptions of her lonely life then become something more transformative. It can be subtly sinister when we see packs of dogs beginning to go haywire in the streets or a passenger that is picked up on the side of the road offering some unsettling proclamations. As all this is going on, there is something oddly liberating about the entire experience as well.
This manifests in a series of standout sequences that are as transfixing as they are terrifying as Itto and her fellow travelers become swept up in something that is greater than themselves. The first of these comes when they get surrounded by a massive storm and everything almost seems to melt away. Alaoui creates what could be described as an out-of-body experience, though that description itself only feels like it is scratching the surface. It puts everything in perspective where even a single tear can fall away and become part of the broader universe. There is no explicit explanation for this phenomenon or what follows. However, is that not what such an experience might be like if we stumbled upon it ourselves?
Even as science fiction films can often make the incomprehensible into something more comprehensible, there is something that is joyous about not being bound by any such need to sand things down. Instead, as Itto becomes immersed in this all-encompassing event, we do right along with her. It both puts everything in perspective and also sharpens the small details of the world as she had previously known it in beautifully shot moments that hold us in awe.
Alas, the moments where the film will step away from this more absorbing approach only makes one long for more of it. While much of this could be by design as a way to mirror the way Itto has become forever changed by what she experienced yet is unable to revisit it, there is also less to latch onto elsewhere. The character work is less flushed out and the conclusion to one particular storyline feels incomplete as we get whisked away back into the ordinary that is still forever tempered with something strange. What holds it together is this lingering sense that something remains amiss and life may never be the same for humanity again.
For Itto, this takes on profound meaning as she is overcome by what was revealed to her when her world had become painfully small. Though there are next to no answers that either she or we will get, the experience of looking is what sets the film apart. It is in its willingness to peer directly through the looking glass that most other science fiction works would blink in the face of where Animalia taps into something that remains as spectacular as it is elusive.