Film review: High Life

A rather different vision of space travel may be too contemplative for many

High Life
Directed by Claire Denis
With Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth

Films about space travel are usually action-packed affairs with aliens and laser battles. French art film director Claire Denis, working in English, offers something quite different in High Life.

In the future, Monte (Robert Pattinson) and a young girl named Willow (Jessie Ross) are alone on a large and rundown spaceship a far distance from Earth.

Monte has to keep the ship running, going out on solo spacewalks to do maintenance and making pointless reports nobody will ever read, as the ship’s computer requires daily verbal updates or it will shut down.

They were not always alone, and the story of how they wound up where they are and what happened to everyone else slowly unfolds.

In the past, the people on the ship were at the mercy of Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is running some social experiments. The boredom of space travel has taken its toll on the dysfunctional crew, and conflicts have developed.

The ship from the outside looks like a metal container, and has a number on it. One can assume that it is one of several missions to space that each is having its own problems.

The plot is rather loose and disjointed, which may put a lot of viewers off. Claire Denis takes her inspiration from other art film directors like Andrei Tarkovsky, who made the rather ponderous films Solaris and Stalker. Comparing High Life to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a large overstatement, but the sense of the astronaut alone on a ship where the mission has gone wrong is a bit similar. The rundown spaceship, far from home, with a crew descending into mental illness is similar to John Carpenter’s Dark Star.

In the flashback scenes, which flesh out the story, there are sporadic bits of action but these tend to be fights among the people or technical crises on the ship, and not the sort of explosive encounters that people usually expect in space travel films.

Denis creates a few surrealistic scenes, in particular with a part of the ship called the Box, where crew members go for some assigned fantasy time. It is more disturbing than erotic.

Robert Pattinson has been trying to take diverse and challenging roles over since he made it big in the Twilight Saga as a vampire. He has appeared in two films by David Cronenberg: Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars. Other roles have been in a film about James Dean called Life, a crime drama called Good Time, the adventure biopic Lost City of Z and a dystopian film called Rover. None of these has been anywhere near as successful as the Twilight Saga.

In High Life, he gives a very restrained performance, keeping very low key even in the flashbacks when the ship is filled with people. He doesn’t overplay the obvious mental strain he is under.

Veteran actress Juliette Binoche, active in French films since the 1980s as well as in international productions like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The English Patient, has a more engaging and emotional role, but limited screen time.

Director Claire Denis comes out of French art cinema from the 1980s, and has kept a non-commercial aesthetic throughout her career. Her early films like Chocolat (1988) dealt with life in Africa, where she spent much of her youth. Later works include the erotic horror film Trouble Every Day and the relationship drama 35 Shots of Rum.

It is no surprise that she avoids the rules of narrative and science fiction in High Life to deliver a unique and personal, if perhaps ultimately unsatisfying, vision of the future.

High Life will appeal to fans of art house cinema who have had enough of overblown CGI climaxes to last them for a while. People who come because they liked the Twilight Saga or who want a noisy space epic will likely find it a bit too disjointed.

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