High Life: In space, no one can hear you breed

This is a look at space we’ve never seen before, and we’re better for it.

Claire Denis films are a mixed bag. Sometimes they drip along, making a point so repeatedly that it begins to feel redundant. Sometimes they’re deep and dreamlike, the story riveting enough that by the time you’re settled, you can’t look away. High Life is the latter.

The film is the 14th for the French director, and the first in English. It tells the story of the nine-member crew from space ship #7. On Earth, they’ve been condemned to death for various reasons, and the government has shipped them off with the stated mission to enter a black hole and find a new energy source for their home planet. But everyone seems to have other ideas.

The protagonist is Monte, played with such ease by Robert Pattinson that you won’t think of Twilight once. Monte is condemned for killing a friend who killed his dog. Juliette Binoche plays Dibs, a doctor who’s conducting some breeding experiments of her own. “I know I look like a witch,” she tells the crew at one point, and she does. Every character in High Life feels threatening on screen, carrying a sort of stoicism, a resignation that can cause the bad energy to bubble into evil at any time. It’s portrayed in the long gazes from one character to the other, and in the way they line up to follow along with the ship’s bizarre rituals.

The set is masterful. This isn’t the high tech stuff of Star Wars. There are no lasers here, no galaxy jumps, no planets bearing the promise of life. This space is dark and tangible. The ship drifts through nothingness like a giant piece of Lego, the power blinking on and off, the padding of the walls coming loose. This, too, is part of the threat, that the ship could one day break down like an old Chevy Lumina and send the crew on a death journey even more aimless than their current one. And when the ship accidentally encounters another on the same journey, we – like Monte – begin to wonder if that’s the point.

Even with all this darkness, the plot moves at an ample pace. The characters, the atmosphere, and the soundtrack are ghostly and threatening, commanding attention to the very end. Everything, from the flickering images of Earth to the lush green garden, is precarious, yet somehow constant. Willow (Jessie Ross), who Monte is tasked with raising, is the sole glimpse of hope.

Only Denis could have made this – a filmmaker unafraid of abrasiveness, who will let you go without a hug. She’s a master at the subject of human isolation. She can strip humanity to its bones. If High Life was a person, it wouldn’t be one to sit down with for a beer. It’s fine film though, with metaphor upon metaphor, and a mood that stays long after the credits roll. 4/5

High Life
Directed by Claire Denis
Written by Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau
Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin (of Outkast fame), Mia Goth
Runtime: 110 minutes

Trivia: Zadie Smith was initially listed as a screenwriter.

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