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As popular as science-fiction is on the blockbuster stage, films that are heavy on the heady and majesty aspects of the genre are few and far between. Every few years we get phenomenal meditations from writer/director Alex Garland, and we sometimes get surprises like Duncan Jones’ Moon and Shane Carruth’s Primer, but these are rare treats.
That brings us to High Life - the first English-language work from writer/director Claire Denis and a movie that presents a non-linear tale about criminals serving death sentences by traveling into space on a mission to collect energy from a black hole. It’s a film practically designed to scratch the aforementioned itch, ruminating on human nature in a potential future at a deliberate pace, and is outfitted with emotional performances and gorgeous photography. And while it doesn’t quite click on the same level as the genius works mentioned above, it’s still an impressive cinematic experience that successfully sticks with you.
Based on an original script by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, and Geoff Cox, High Life centers on Monte (Robert Pattinson), who we first meet at the start of the film as the only person left alive on a spaceship other than his infant daughter (Scarlett Lindsey). He works each day to keep the life support systems going and the vessel operational, and exactly what happened to the other members of the crew is unclear. These secrets are revealed, however, as the story takes us back and forth in time.
Monte was originally one of nine aboard, with the rest of the crew consisting of fellow criminals (Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin, Gloria Obianyo, Claire Tran, Ewan Mitchell), the captain (Lars Eidinger), the pilot (Agata Buzek), and a doctor (Juliette Binoche). As the movie unfolds, we learn that there was more than one mission taking place on the ship, and it winds up taking a serious psychological toll on everyone involved, leading to tragic results.
Just because of the nature of the film, it should be recognized up front that High Life isn’t for everybody. There are guaranteed to be large segments of the general movie-going public that doesn’t have the patience for it, and being unwilling to stick with it they will reject it in favor of material that perhaps has a bit more zip. Given proper time and consideration, though, it’s also definitely a story that packs some walloping shocks, horrific twists, and some fascinating reflection on existence at the end of it all – the conclusions being surprisingly dark.
Not having the budget of blockbuster sci-fi fare, the movie has to keep things mostly simple in its design, but it still has the capacity to both stun and impress. Stark as it may be, a practical existence is established within the confines of the ship, adding a particular level of authenticity, and both the onboard greenhouse and technology offer juxtaposing kinds of beauty – with the former showcasing the purity of nature, while the latter offering striking colors and light. As impressive as it is, though, it’s also dwarfed by the majesty of what’s going on beyond the shielded paneling. Not only does Claire Denis find opportunity to show the horror that is the emptiness of space, she also expands the mind with epic cosmic photography (albeit visual effect-generated) that manages to re-contextualize the universe and our place within it – with great credit going to physicist and consultant Aurélien Barrau.
By putting an emphasis on theme and narrative, High Life doesn’t really spend a lot of time defining its characters beyond their role to play in the larger story, but still the film offers opportunity for excellent performances – particularly from Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. Without giving too much away, both have complex pasts that contributed to their presence on the ship, and while everything is played with a certain subtlety, how those pasts are reflected in their actions is often both emotional and shocking. Binoche in particular delivers a haunting turn that only becomes more disturbing as more about her is revealed, and it leaves a lasting impact.
I’ve tried to keep details to a minimum, as High Life is a film that is best seen as an engulfing experience that reveals itself to you as it plays out. And while it is sometimes a bit overindulgent and leisurely in its pacing, those patches aren’t what you walk away thinking about in the grand scheme. With its grandiose imagery, devastating themes and philosophy, and complex storytelling, it’s a rare hard sci-fi treat, and one that deserves appreciation while playing on the big screen.