Review - 'High Life'
I am admittedly (shamefully) new to the work of the much-revered director of High Life, Claire Denis, but after watching this highly intellectual and artistic space drama/thriller, I am inclined to delve much deeper into her filmography.
High Life tells the story of a group of convicts who, instead of being sentenced to death, agreed to live their lives out in service of a bold scientific experiment. Their assigned mission: board a ship that is on passage to the nearest black hole in order to extract potentially planet-saving resources.
It takes guts to make a film this filled-to-the-brim with out-there ideas. I am drawn to movies that are constantly swinging for the fences, and Denis is always at the bat, giving it all she has here. High Life is very non-linear in the way its narrative unfolds. We start at, basically, the conclusion of the story, and then the film works backwards to show the viewer how we got there. You would think this would take away from the mystery, but Denis is constantly spoon-feeding new ideas and adding interesting, unexpected wrinkles to what I thought I knew, so much so that I viewed the final destination much differently than I originally envisioned.
In addition to its non-standard narrative structure, the film masterfully blends themes of life and optimism with death and impending dread. It is in one way a hopeful film about creating life and raising a child while also demonstrating how cruel and brutal humans can be, and how life for everyone ultimately comes to an end. Even more impressive is that this existential yen and yang is conveyed through characters and their interactions in a claustrophobic environment…in space! And since this crew is doomed, their inhibitions are loosened, resulting in a scenario where drastic emotional outbursts are a plausible occurrence in each and every frame. It’s rare when you see a film where every character is not afraid to show exactly who they are on the inside because there is nothing left to fear.
There are two towering performances in High Life. Robert Pattinson once again proves that he is not the monotone sparkly vampire we took him for in the Twilight series. Here, he plays Monte, a man convicted of killing his friend over his dog’s death. I won’t give away too much, but for a good portion of this film he is taking care of a baby, and his interactions with said infant, and how she reciprocates them, are so intensely realistic that if you had told me Pattinson was actually this child’s father, I would not hesitate to believe you. Juliette Binoche is also incredibly good as Dibs, the “captain” of the vessel. She’s interesting in that based off of her dark, murderous history, she’s a truly psychotic villain, yet she still shows empathy and has obsessive desire to cultivate new life.
I do have a few gripes with the film though, and some of them were probably unavoidable for the filmmakers. The film never quite hits that euphoric high note that it so desperately wants to. Where other intellectual science fiction films like Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Alex Garland’s Annihilation make it to the peak of the mountain, High Life decides to head back down mere feet from the top, it consistently impressed me, but I was never out-right floored by any of it. The film is also slightly constrained by its low-budget. Some of the effects shots look blurry and un-detailed and the technology in the ship is pretty much identical to things that we can buy at your local tech retailer, it just doesn’t look advanced enough for a ship that is hurtling just under light-speed towards a black hole. That said, there is still some mesmerizing and beautiful camera work here that more than makes up for some of the film’s technological shortcomings.
Despite falling just short of what it could have been, High Life is still an intimate, brutal exercise in art-house science fiction, and more than worth your time.