Leave it to Claire Denis to make the most original science fiction film of the year. But, in doing so, Denis is sure to polarize in her pursuit of something that spits in the face of generic convention. The first thing we see in High Life is jarring, in that it is not what you would normally focus on in a sci-fi film. It is a baby crying in the sterile, metallic environment of a space ship. Over radio communication, her father Monte (Robert Pattinson) tries to soothe her softly while he works on a panel outside of the ship.
“We were scum,” Monte later says, in voiceover. “Trash. Refuse that didn’t fit into the system, until someone had the bright idea of recycling us.” He goes on to tell the story of how he got to the present moment. He was a convict, arrested as a teenager for a violent crime that we only see flashes of. Agreeing to a government contract, he and a group of inmates are sent into space, initially with no idea that the mission is a one-way trip.
The narrative structure is dynamic. It bounces in and out of flashbacks organically, moving deliberately yet without dawdling. Information is revealed on a need-to-know basis as we are dropped into a story already in progress—it is near the end, it feels like. Sure, the voiceover monologues presenting the backstory may come off a tad clunky and novel-like, but it is written with such a precise eloquence that it is easy to overlook.
The backstory ends up encompassing most of the screentime, potentially to the film’s detriment. There are many ideas floating around this plotty yet largely unexplained space mission, but viewers looking for a sci-fi experience from Denis may be disappointed. The inmate crew are en route to a black hole in order to experiment with the idea of harnessing energy there. They are also being experimented on for their fertility by the ship’s doctor, Dibs (Juliette Binoche).
Neither of these plot threads are taken toward natural science fiction ends. The film ostensibly ignores the notion of science fiction in favor of an exploration of carnal human nature, the organic desires of the body and how different characters function in light of these urges. Someone looking for a tense sci-fi thriller involving inmates in space is not going to find satisfaction here, and they aren’t going to get a satisfying resolution to the sci-fi plot threads, either.
But the specifics of the crew’s mission is not pertinent to understanding what is on display in the film. They are attempting to harness energy from a black hole, while also experimenting with fertilization. The latter is entangled with a portion of the themes, explorations of the human condition as they relate to relationships, sex, isolation, and restraint. The former is merely a MacGuffin.
Denis is much more interested in these transient themes. They are disparate, and Denis allows them to be presented frankly without intense inspection. For a quiet meditation punctuated with the occasional outburst of sex, violence, or sexual violence, the things meditated on can come off somewhat hollow. But as an exploration of Monte’s psyche, with his chaste, monk-like nature consistently challenged until he is left with nothing but a baby and his own thoughts, this is an intriguing character study.
Denis does an adept job blending the radical tone shifts. Mainly, she accomplishes this by treating both sides with a surprising tenderness. The quiet meditation and the emphatic violent outbursts are both given space to exist with a frankness that is transfixing. Denis is presenting a life of bleak seclusion and allows all sides of the psychological ramifications therein to breathe unencumbered.
This process is what forces the plot to the edges, for better and worse. But it fills the narrative with uncompromising human drives and impulses which bring out the human condition in ways rarely seen in science fiction film. The setting may be technological and sterile, as almost all science fiction presents its spacecraft settings, but the environment remains human. It is a humanity in all of its beautiful and dastardly forms.
Again, this does not necessarily lead to a satisfying resolution to anything that the plot presents to us. The character study of Monte, likewise, is not resolved in a complete way. But as an experiential trip through the arrested human psyche, which is trapped in the push-and-pull between innate impulse and rational thought, it is something completely different. And that is refreshing.
To truly enjoy High Life—unless you are an ardent fan of Denis’ work, in which case you are likely on board unconditionally—concessions must be made. But the concessions are light, and the rewards are potentially profound.
High Life: B
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)