Film Review: High Life
By Erik Nielsen
I can not shake the opening scene of High Life.
Robert Pattinson on the outside of a shoebox-looking space shuttle with a wrench, attempting to tighten some screws, he shakes as the sounds of a baby crying rings through his telecom. We are then struck by the absolute silence of space as the wrench falls from his hands and disappears into blackness. Then we see a heart being dropped into a well of darkened turquoise water. As the heart drops and splashes, a face appears to be emerging on the waves. Then we’re back to the ship where that same baby sits in a beautifully lush and serene garden. It’s Claire Denis’s play with images like in this opening scene that will stay with you long after the movie ends. This is why High Life will be worth watching not just once, but will ultimately demand repeat viewings.
The film starts and ends with Pattinson. Nothing he’s done in the last five years can be said to be a safe choice; he continues to push his limits as he transitions from his superstardom from Twilight into bonafide character acting. Denis guides Pattinson through a tour de force performance that is an equal mix of stoicism and explosive will power.
Pattinson plays Monte who, like the other crew members, are death row convicts. They’ve all volunteered their services for the mission on the ill-fated promise of freedom upon their return home. Their mission: travel to the outer reaches of the galaxy to a small black hole, then harness its energy and return it back to earth.
Among the convicts are Tcherny (André 3000) and the sexually deceptive Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche). Dr. Dibs suffocated her children back on earth, but her background in science permits her to use the other crew members as guinea pigs to search for new ways to create life amidst the vast darkness in space. She is often seen sedating the male characters, looking to extract their semen.
The sexual tension that Binoche creates among the crew drives the conflict in the power dynamic that will eventually turn into violent upheaval. This film takes its characters and breaks their will to live, as life is prolonged and aging becomes a foreign concept. The real crux of the movie is watching these death row convicts grapple with themselves, their past still with them.
Pattinson’s character wants to abandon everything that is human. Memories to him are burdens as we relive his childhood. The flashback sequences are beautifully shot with the grainy film textures that let us run our hands through the dusty memories that haunt Pattinson’s character.
It’s more poetic in its structure than it is a straightforward narrative. Building on tone, feeling, and sound, Denis’ images plot ideas that will grow and explode deep in our subconscious as the volunteer astronauts close in on the black hole. Denis remarkably lulls us into hypnosis with a beautifully dark and erotic take on space exploration. She uses editing to cut tiny fissures in the space that exists between past and present. Her rhythms are instinctual, quickly transporting us to a time just before and a time soon to come. There are great moments of silence followed by screams, screeches, and warped perception.
If Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar was hopeful for mankind and our ability to love, Denis’s High Life intends to break our will.