Sci-Fi On Your Own Terms: Our Review of ‘High Life’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - April 19, 2019
Sci-Fi On Your Own Terms: Our Review of ‘High Life’

High Life opens with some greenery, a vision the audience questions. This movie is, after all, Claire Denis’ new science fiction film which, for some reason, involves precious bodily fluids. And we’re right to question what we’re seeing. She zooms out, and we see this greenery as something that humans grew inside a spaceship. She then introduces us to one of those humans, Monte (Robert Pattinson). He’s fixing the ship’s outside paneling while listening to his baby daughter, Willow (Scarlett Lindsay). Willow is in some video room at another part of the ship. His work seems endlessly excruciating.

Monte’s work in the ship feels more burdensome as High Life reveals more facts about this fictional world. The ship is part of a governmental system containing prisoners (including Andre Benjamin and Mia Goth) that they assign to study black holes. Somehow, Monte and Willow became the only two left. Genre expectations dictate that this is one of those cabin fever in space movies. But class based prejudices take hold in looking at Monte and the other prisoners. “These are a bunch of criminals, of course they’re going to kill each other”. It doesn’t help that all of them are under the control of a scientist (Juliette Binonche) who has the most dangerous record on the ship.

This is when we can grapple with whether or not Denis is a complex auteur or if she’s simply giving us mixed messages. Contemplating this movie days after watching it, it diverges from other ship movies with clean cut scientists. And there’s something hopeful about her placing criminals on screen. It reminds us that prison systems have existed for decades without imploding. If penal colonies have turned into functioning countries, there’s hope for this ship as it continues its prime directive.

There’s also something about this movie that adds both to its air of dread and its hopeful undertones. That’s through Pattinson’s performance, breathing life into Monte as a character. Both Denis and Pattinson show Monte alone. They also show him with the other inmates when they were still alive. There are even flashbacks of him and the other inmates when they were still free vagrants. And his transformation from that early version of himself to being a good worker and a good father shows that the system works even if it only works for one person. I’m not sure if he believes in what he’s doing, but his unconscious decision to keep on working shows the movie’s belief in perseverance.

Some of the movie’s depiction of space physics is questionable. A wrench drifts away from Monte instead of floating near him. The garden itself is just one of many rooms in the ship that hold too many liquids for a metal vessel to not rust. But the movie, for the most part, successfully argues its intentional contradictions. Apologies in advance for comparing a female director for a male one, but Denis’ depictions of space age decay and its early counterparts are reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s renditions decades earlier. And Denis incorporates that early aesthetic in depicting both the fear and hope that the future brings.

  • Release Date: 4/19/2019
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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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