2019, R, 110 min. Directed by Claire Denis. Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth, Lars Eidinger, Agata Buzek.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 12, 2019
There's something deeply frustrating when a director who has traditionally steered clear of working in a genre dips their toes and then claims, no, it's not a genre piece. It's a statement that the filmmaker thinks that genre is beneath them, like it's lucky that they are there. And so it is with Claire Denis, who has distanced herself from the notion that her science-fiction film High Life is a science-fiction film. It undoubtedly is. It's just not a particularly good one.
Science fiction is a genre of ideas that has attracted "mainstream" artists who want a degree of creative liberty, and to probe questions of existence in a metaphorical yet grounded environment (shorter version, if it's good enough for J.G. Ballard, it's good enough for you). In High Life, Denis sets her protagonists in the splendid isolation of a prison ship, dispatched at near-light speed on a mission of exploration to a black hole. However, the only scientist aboard is Dibs (Binoche, inexplicably buried under a three-foot weave), who has engaged the inmates in some kind of slapdash and ill-defined breeding program.
However, she is not the center of events: That's Monte (Pattinson, gaunt and exhausted), who is introduced as the sole survivor of the original crew. His only company is a baby, Willow, for whom he must care, and he does so with gentle, measured compassion. The fate of the rest of the crew – all prisoners ejected into the void by a civilization that has no purpose for them – is slackly explored and somewhat explained through a back-and-forth narrative that dismantles any sense of connection to these ill-sketched inmates, as they hurtle toward nothingness. Other than Pattinson (who yet again proves that he can illustrate a whole life through the slightest of sighs and motions), they are absences: Goth's Boyse is just a pouty teen, while Benjamin's family man Tcherny drifts in for moments before an ending that is shrouded in an absurd mysticism. Bar Monte, the crew are less engaging than the robots in Silent Running.
High Life is a meandering mess of symbolism, half-thoughts, ponderous exchanges, and emotional dead ends, one that confuses ambiguity for an unengaging air of vagueness. The addition of a second prison ship, filled with semi-feral dogs who have survived through cannibalism, is so on-the-nose that its arrival would be painful, if the audience wasn't numb to events by that point. Any sense of gravity is undercut by Denis' attempts at scathing insight, which are either surprisingly trite or – as in the case of two back-to-back sexual assaults – emotionally ugly in the worst ways.