Parenthood is hard enough without cosmic doom staring you in the face—and in High Life, death is just the cherry on top.
As much a space oddity as it is an odyssey, director Claire Denis’ damned voyage finds new and brutal margins in what’s becoming a well-covered sub-genre. The movie opens with astronaut Monte (Robert Pattinson) struggling to raise his infant daughter, Willow (Scarlett Lindsey), aboard a decrepit spacecraft. But High Life’s nonlinear beats turn this paternal drama infinitely stranger. A slow burn reveals the ship’s crew to be death row inmates, their one-way ticket made all the more frightening by radiation, medical experiments, and the sinister motives among them.
As rape and murder become focal points in a holistically fucked-up film, High Life feels closer in spirit to a horror story than a spin on sci-fi. While the picture calls to mind 2001, Moon, and even Interstellar to some degree, Denis’ willingness to get down and dirty (evidenced most overtly by the sheer amount of bodily fluids) positions High Life as far darker than most outer space escapades.
On a basic story level, transplanting a prison flick to a galaxy far, far away offers plenty of morbid potential. Yet it’s the bizarre ways in which Denis realizes those possibilities that make this movie something special. Her success lies partly in the visceral imagery—bodies falling through nothingness, explosive blood splatter, lingering scenes of autoeroticism—though more so in the exploration of violence and morality as concepts. Denis looks at her subjects through an almost scientific lens: impartial, opting for tricky questions over any definitive truth. What are the justifications for deadly force? Where does one’s humanity end? Monte may be our protagonist, but he’s hardly an ethical lodestar. When it comes to a final moral, High Life is something of a Choose Your Own Adventure.
Pervasive gray areas demand much of actors, and this cast meets the challenge. Juliette Binoche stands out as Dibs, a doctor hellbent on creating life despite having taken it. Her character is the film’s most complicated, but Binoche has no problem balancing a mad scientist’s tact with primal tendencies. Mr. 3000 himself, André Benjamin, once again proves his multidisciplinary talents, playing the depressed Tcherny with impressive subtlety. We’re probably not getting a new OutKast album anytime soon, but it’d be great to see Benjamin in more movies. And of course Pattinson serves as lynchpin, his performance here another feather in his post-Twilight cap. His role choices have been solid of late, his execution even better. That’s the freedom multimillion-dollar romance deals afford you, so at least something good came from that terrible vampire saga.
High Life is certainly not for everyone, but if you like weird sci-fi, this film hits the right notes. Denis’ vision doesn’t make for an easy first viewing and demands a couple of re-watches for maximum impact—but if you can withstand the brutality, it’s an experience as distinct as it is disturbing. When it comes to contemporary space movies, that’s a rarity.
Director: Claire Denis
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin
Theater: Area theaters, now showing