Synopsis – A father and his daughter struggle to survive in deep space where they live in isolation.
My Take – A few days ago, scientists succeeded by providing us the first-ever photograph of a black hole. While we have seen and heard a lot about them in various science fiction films over the years, its actual presence now makes it seem both terrifying and inspiring at the same time, proving once again how we still don’t know much about our universe. Here, bringing in another feature length spin to their existence is this film from Claire Denis, a renowned French director marking her English-language debut.
While I’ve heard of her work, I have shamefully never seen any of it, though I know for a fact that she is known as a major director with a fierce independent streak, who pursues her own vision, with results sometimes being both sublime as well as awful, yet always without compromise.
Based on an idea that came to her after she read an article about a town that wondered if their death row inmates could be put to use, here, director Denis brings an unsettling high concept space thriller that challenges viewers with themes on isolation, sensual desire and the relationship between parents and children. Although various themes are partially thought about in the film, the space is merely a location for this disturbing story about a human study, which I will say is admirable, but unfortunately the challenge here is beyond comprehension.
While the concept is very interesting, the film goes on for long stretches of dull, thanks to a non-linear plot and unlikable set of characters, making its 113 minutes run time feel a lot longer than it is supposed to.
The story follows Monte (Robert Pattinson), who along with Willow (Scarlett Lindsey), his infant daughter are the only surviving crew members of a spacecraft that has been heading towards a black hole to find a new energy source.
Years ago, like his crew consisting of Tcherny (André Benjamin), Boyse (Mia Goth), Elektra (Gloria Obianyo), Chandra (Lars Eidinger), Ettore (Ewan Mitchell), Mink (Claire Tran), and Nansen (Agata Buzek), Monte too was once a death row inmate awaiting execution on Earth, but when an opportunity rose to participate in a mission that will also get them out of their conviction, he jumped on, not realizing its potentiality.
Now serving under Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a sensual and fertility-obsessed scientist on board who is the closest thing to a leader for a leaderless crew, the vessel filled with violent criminals trapped in confined spaces slowly and inevitably descends into complete chaos.
The film’s opening scenes establish the story being told in such a stark, distressing way that when the actual plot begins to unfold you have to make the effort to both hold onto the pieces of the narrative puzzle being dropped and try and interpret the visceral emotions director Denis is trying to evoke. A few sequences are either weird or shocking enough to stick in viewers’ memories, but long stretches of the film are as dull as drifting endlessly through nothingness. While all the intensity of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is here, the beauty of that film has been stripped away.
The spaceship is dim and beige, and the uniforms match. Without a doubt, this film is a bleak and lonely vision of space travel that’s akin to Sunshine or Moon. There’s very little exposition, leaving the audience to piece everything together from the barest scraps of details. The only good thing left on this edge of the universe is the love between a father and his daughter.
Between breast milk, waste water, blood and more, director Denis never holds back from shocking the audience with multiple sudden deaths, haunting rape scenes and various graphic moments. But with such little character development, why invest in these stories? For a film with such a small cast of characters, we learn very little about their backstories and motivations. Is this a parable about the fundamentally destructive nature of humanity? Or just the inevitable chaos that unfolds when a bunch of violent criminals get locked up together in interstellar prison? Well it’s hard to full understand.
Here, crew members work off sexual tension in the chamber of orgasms, a process that Dibs enjoys more than anyone, and there is a long and graphic sequence of Binoche working off nervous energy, a scene that makes explicit, well quite explicit. The cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk deserves a mention. Though not necessarily inventive, the film is beautifully filmed.
Some memorable scenes are washed out with deep red and blue hues, or there’s a lone subject focused against a pitch black background that amplifies the infinite celestial landscapes.
This film is a pessimistic meditation on the human condition that is destined to have its themes discussed and debated by film fans for decades. I personally found this to be a morbid film with moments of cruelty and violation that will make you want to look away, but also striking imagery that will render you unable to avert your gaze. The sight of the crew’s lifeless bodies drifting through space in the opening moments of the film is haunting and a black hole, which Willow says looks like a crocodile’s eye, seen during the film’s final moments is undeniably beautiful.
While the film centers Dibs’ fixation as its earliest sign of the film’s horror element, the film really only uses it as a means of establishing the darker psychosexual themes running all throughout the film. After having long since given up any hope of ever reaching the black hole they’re meant to somehow harvest energy from, the crew’s settled into a numbing daily rhythm that’s punctuated by Dibs’ newfound obsession: orchestrating the first successful birth of a child in space.
Methodically, Dibs collects semen from the men and inseminates the women on the ship, and while the women are able to conceive, the intense radiation causes them to repeatedly miscarry. After each failed attempt, Dibs soldiers on and her fellow crew members are left feeling like the numb, used lab rats they are to her, and they loathe her for it in one way or another.
Science fiction films often strives towards forward-thinking stories, bent on using future progress as a measuring stick for society as it already is. Here, the ideas at play surrounding humanity’s metaphysical desires (from sexual gratification to parenthood) are too universal for a film to fit into any one genre or set of expectations. This is not a film that inspires a solution to what ails us but rather exists to remind of the problems that will never be solved. And what’s worse? Director Denis takes her own sweet time.
Yes, the film is very slow, not by accident and not really by miscalculation, but because it probably had to be. The film depicts a journey that doesn’t seem to have an endpoint, so time stretches out, and there’s no reason for anyone to rush. Still, as you can imagine, such a situation hardly makes for gripping drama. For that reason, the film requires too much from the average viewer to be considered broadly appealing. If not for its key performances from Pattinson and Binoche, the film would completely fail to register as more than an inconsequential exercise in abstract experimentation.
While I haven’t been the biggest Robert Pattinson fan in the past, I liked his performance here, he seemed to really dig in and embody this character. And his chemistry with Juliette Binoche is electric and drives much of the film forward, but in the moments focused on him as a new father, it’s impossible not to recall that at one point, the role was meant for an older actor. Sure, Pattinson’s more than capable of bringing the right energy to the screen, but his youth does put the tiniest cracks in the fantasy of the film.
Juliette Binoche is a fantastic actress, and is able to convey exactly what’s necessary for the audience to feel in the moment. Mia Goth is great, she plays a very rigid girl who ends up going through quite a bit throughout this film, and I must say that I loved the very real ways she portrayed this character. André Benjamin is the only source of light as a likable character other than Monte.
While the other cast members, Gloria Obianyo, Lars Eidinger, Ewan Mitchell, Claire Tran, and Agata Buzek are alright in their roles. On the whole, ‘High Life’ is a provocative, challenging yet speculative sci-fi film which despite its themes is undercut by its non-linear plot, graphic depictions and slow pace.
Directed – Claire Denis
Rated – R
Run Time – 113 minutes