Review: High Life is a fairly high fluid-mark for isolation space thrillers

Venturing far into the vacuum of space, where singularities tear apart galaxies, director Claire Denis has beautifully captured the quietness, isolation, and violence of space in her latest effort, High Life. Hitting on the time- and space-bending visuals meets fatherly love of Interstellar and the solitary, intergalactic bio-dome of The Martian, the film ends up surpassing both by worrying less about the science than the human element—from the tender and good to the disquietingly wretched.

Told in three distinct chapters, the film tosses Robert Pattinson into a shipping container of a spaceship, splitting his time between humanizing solitude and dehumanizing sexual experiments. The first section sees Pattinson’s Monte in ISS single dad mode, balancing the raising of an infant and the tending of his declining vessel. Pattinson is as magnetic as he’s ever been since washing his vampire glitter off, (at least partially) improvising against a crying, cooing baby. As in Good Time, this is a film that sounds deceptively like a stoner comedy and turns Pattinson into a convict who’s hard to look away from. It’s a largely one-man show he anchors into the far plottier, sometimes bizarre second act promised by High Life’s trailer.

In that section, we see that in whatever vague future the film suggests (to its strength, it’s slim on details), man has sorted out near-lightspeed space travel but is, apparently, running low on energy. The solution, as hastily revealed in the film’s only “present”-set Earth scene, was obvious: get some unusually attractive life sentence and death row inmates (Mia Goth and André Benjamin among them) to agree to a deadly mission, sending them close enough to a black hole to possibly, somehow (again, High Life doesn’t sweat the scientific mumbo-jumbo all that much), harness its energy. But that’s not the only hole energy the mission is concerned with.

Turns out, ship doctor and fellow death rower Dr. Dib (Juliette Binoche, named for someone’s college roommate whose actual name you’ve never heard) has a secondary scientific goal: seeing if she can get someone to pop out a baby while accelerating beyond the known solar system. Because why not? It’s basically Suicide Squad: Space SVU, a ragtag group of criminals, at odds with a sexualized witch woman (Dr. Dib, with her flowing mess of black hair, even labeling herself as such) while on a violent, sex crime-inclusive death mission. (Incidentally, get Pattinson as Joker, Goth as Harley, Benjamin as Deadshot, Binoche as Enchantress, and move on from there if anyone from Warner Bros. wants to explore this strained comparison further.)

Predictably, the cramped quarters and disparate, criminal crew feed into a predictably darkening stew fed by the broth of so many fluids. Blood, semen, piss, shit-water, rainwater, and iodine-colored sedatives flow liberally despite the absence of a single Miller beer; that Pattinson early on suggests a murder-suicide by drowning is all too apt.

To spoil the film’s borderline sentimental final act, or too many of the infrequent, often violent beats that get us there, would be a disservice to High Life—partially because it’s not something one necessarily wants to see again. (Some festival attendees, and a woman in front of me at my screening, walked out before even hitting the third segment.)  It’s sometimes brutal, sometimes both silly and abstract (particularly inside The Fuck Box, a small room outfitted with dildo bull ride and car wash mechanics), and often languid, but it’s certainly something—beautifully shot and expertly crafted, with physicist Aurélien Barrau and artist Olafur Eliasson helping to, respectively, make the intergalactic and production design experiences accurate and gorgeous. Denis’ first English-language movie isn’t an absolute success, but it’s a unique, unlikely sci-fi venture that lingers with you. If we’re going to have a septuagenarian keep shooting gorgeously-constructed, brutal space missions, one thing is clear: Denis needs to take over for Ridley Scott.

Grade: B+

High Life
Director: Claire Denis
Studio: A24
Runtime: 110 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, André Benjamin

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