A film review by Craig J. Koban July 13, 2019

HIGH LIFE jjjj

2019, R, 110 mins.

 

Robert Pattinson as Monte  /  Juliette Binoche as Dr. Dibs  /  André Benjamin as Tcherny  /  Mia Goth as Boyse

Written and directed by Claire Denis

There have been enough science fiction films that have explored space travel to literally fill a black hole, which leaves most new entries having to work overtime to overcome stale genre lethargy.  

HIGH LIVE falls into the aforementioned category, but its genius is in how deceptively it transcends the obligatory accoutrements of these types of space trekking tales, partially because of its masterfully economic scale, but mostly because it's the exact polar opposite of what viewers have come to expect from the genre, which is action, spectacle, and wanton CGI excess.  French director Claire Denis (making her English language feature film debut) seems more compulsively drawn to sci-fi as a source of thought provoking ideas and using the canvas of the genre to speak towards dark and disturbing truths about the human condition.  And that's precisely what makes the film so ominously boundary pushing and hauntingly powerful. 

And the premise contained within HIGH LIFE is a unique and endlessly intriguing one.  Mixing equal parts 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, SILENT RUNNING, and SOLARIS, Denis' sci-fi outing deals with a group of prisoners being used for a deep space mission that's supposed to culminate with an arrival at a black hole, but instead they all begin to realize that they're being used as guinea pigs for some extremely twisted sexual experiments.  The central narrative arc here is an undeniably creepy one, which plays well into Denis' creative wheelhouse in wanting to take conventional genre ingredients and twist and turn them in innovative ways to make her film feel fresh and alive.  Those looking for the a warm and inviting film about journeying into the cosmos will undoubtedly be turned off here, and HIGH LIFE doesn't hold viewers hands at all (it's so replete with explicit violence, sex and an undulating sensation of potent unease that how it didn't receive an NC-17 is beyond me), but for those with strong attention spans and stomachs and a willingness to throw themselves down into the rabbit hole that Denis has concocted here, then HIGH LIFE will prove to be a challenging, sometimes repulsive, but wholeheartedly intoxicating ride.

 

 

The film is told in a non-linear story structure and opens in a quietly spectacular fashion by introducing us to Monte (Robert Pattinson), one of those convicts that now sees himself becoming astronaut.  He initially appears to be living alone in a space vessel, but is soon revealed to be co-existing on board with a young baby girl named Willow.  The opening scenes of the film create a sense of fascinating intimacy, as we observe this single man desperately trying to keep himself and his young and fragile companion alive while facing the rigors of space travel.  Every seemingly fleeting moment between these two has the immediacy and veracity of a documentary, and one of the pleasures of HIGH LIFE early on is seeing common, everyday problems that adults face while raising infants being magnified tenfold by the added responsibilities of keeping a spaceship in proper shape with the internal life support systems working (at one point, he talks to the baby via a comlink as he's outside repairing the ship's hull).  The support systems on the vessel must be renewed every 24 hours, which is a huge burdensome stress on Monte.  Compounding these aggravations is the reveal of multiple dead crew, and how they perished is not explained early on.

Denis keeps specific plot mechanizations and twists under wraps, and instead lets her free-flowing and time hopping storytelling allow audience members to piece things together to create some semblance of a whole.  She does provide flashbacks within flashbacks, during which time we see Monte interacting daily with the other alive crew members previously unveiled as dead, and all of them being convicts.  These other death row inmates (two played memorably by Mia Goth and Andre Benjamin), realize that they are at the mercy of their galactic mission to rendezvous with that black hole, but then we're giving chilling details of the twisted plans of the ship's resident mad scientist, Dr. Dibbs (played in one of the most liberating and brave performances of the year by Juliette Binoche), who has being conducting all sorts of sexual tests with these inmates, including collecting their sperm and bodily fluids for the purposes of her mysterious fertility experiments.  And, trust me when I say this, but this is just the beginning of the unsettling insanity to come.

I've come to find broken storytelling structures in films with elliptical time shifting to be equal parts annoying and overused, but HIGH LIFE's scripting fragmentation is kind of crucial towards its later and shocking dramatic payoffs.  Those quiet and mostly quaint opening sections with Monte and the infant never really hint at the sadistic turns this film takes later on, and Denis' teasing of us with the multiple detours her story takes makes it work well as a sensory experience first over a basic, paint-by-numbers story driven one.  The early sequences in the film hint that something foul did indeed happen to the dead crew, but as to whether Monte was the culprit or something else is never tipped off, which gives the remaining story a sense of forward momentum. 

Denis has also made a splendid looking film on the cheap, and she understands that with limited financial restraints she can't conjure up the same sense of scale as, say, INTERSTELLAR when it comes to the particulars of space travel.  Instead, she opts to evoking a strong sense of eerie atmosphere, which is complimented immensely by the undulating discreetness of Stuart Staples' musical score and Yorick Le Saux's finely textured cinematography.  That's not to say, though, that HIGH LIFE is void of VFX, as we do get some fleeting exterior shots of the spaceship as well as some impressively handled shots of the beguiling black hole, but Denis is more driven by the internal struggles of what's going on in the ship versus what's happening outside of it.  There's some sensational visual juxtaposition going on throughout the film as well, like the bucolic lushness of the ship's sealed, Earth-like gardens and vegetation (where the obvious parallels to SILENT RUNNING come in) contrasted with the nightmarish imagery of multiple dead bodies floating through the vastness of space.  HIGH LIFE doesn't have the budget of a summer blockbuster, but it nevertheless packs a sizeable visual wallop.

And unlike most other contemporary sci-fi thrillers, HIGH LIFE is actor driven, with a resoundingly empowered Robert Pattinson leading the charge with one of his most nuanced and understated performances of his career that still teeters towards caged and internalized intensity.  I'll be the first to admit that I've not been easy on the British actor for a majority of his career, but he deserves supreme props for abandoning the allure of franchise pictures post-TWILIGHT and recently has adopted multiple roles that play towards his strengths while working against comfort zones that would make most other actors flee to their agents.  And he's scarily good here in a challenging role that requires deep commitment and not showing the audience all of his character's emotional cards from the onset.  He's flanked well by the empowered supporting players, like Benjamin's assured work as the ship's chief greenhouse worker and Goth's turn as a troubled woman that finds herself in a deplorable scenario.  And then there's Binoche, who's all kinds of unhinged and disquietingly terrifying as her mentally unraveled and obsessed doctor that's harvesting her crew's semen and eggs to achieve her own diabolical endgame.  She simply goes places here that not many other actresses would dare.

As a tale of human misery made all the more miserable by having societal rejects being procreative lab rats, HIGH LIFE treads some tricky territory for the sci-fi genre, to be sure.  It's noteworthy for building layer upon layer of commentary on the worst, most barbaric impulses and motivations of our species that also manages to miraculously culminate in an ending that's unexpectedly upbeat and positive.  But the journey building up to that finale is what stands out the most here, and HIGH LIFE shows Denis as an assured button pushing provocateur that never lazily uses the genre to spin yet another entry on prosaic autopilot.  And if you're feeling down regarding genre filmmaking these days and worry that there are no fresh takes on well worn and frankly overused material, then low key and minimalist sci-fi efforts like this year's STARFISH and now HIGH LIFE demonstrate how to tap into recognizable science fiction troupes and turn them upside down on their heads with innovative flair.

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