Movie review: 'High Life' explores dark human terrain in outer space drama
"High Life" - ★ ★ ★
French filmmaker Claire Denis has not lost her edge as she's coasted into her 70s. Her latest film, "High Life," is as stimulating and challenging as anything she made in the '90s. Although here, she's taken us not to post-Colonial West Africa or modern day France, but to the outer reaches of space to drift around an ominous black hole with Robert Pattinson and a baby, daring us to piece together how they ended up there.
The only thing that's immediately clear is that they are alone on this spaceship, which seems straight out of a 1970s film and is slowly and surely shutting down. Designed by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, it sets a perfectly unnerving mood, and every day Pattinson has to convince a low-tech computer that he is healthy enough and the ship is stable enough to justify systems running for another 24 hours. It's an existential chore to say the least.
Pattinson, as a character named Monte, doesn't have much dialogue to work with. But there is a world of fear and anxiety in his eyes as he tries to tend to the needs of the creaky old ship and the adorable infant in his care. He has a few flashbacks to a moment in his youth on a gray fall day, but it will take some time for the film to reveal what happened and why it's relevant.
Although it is oddly peaceful and compelling watching Monte and this baby, Willow (played by Scarlett Lindsey), go through their routine, eventually you start to itch for the why and the how and Denis doesn't disappoint with her patient reveals. First, you realize, there was other crew on board, but they've all died. Then things get even weirder -- just take a peek at the rating description, which includes sexual assault, and you'll start to see why -- however it certainly doesn't compare to the visceral horror of watching much of that transpire.
It seems a little strange that a Denis movie might contain spoilers, but it also feels wrong to describe in detail what happened before Monte and Willow were the only ones left. Suffice it say, Monte was part of a strange program with inmates, all violent and withdrawn, who find themselves under the watch and experimentation of Juliette Binoche's Dr. Dibs.
This kind of movie experience is a full-body one and totally transfixing from start to finish, but it's also maddeningly confounding. I'm still not entirely sure what it all adds up to, but it is provocative, difficult and bleak and leaves you with a feeling of despair and aloneness -- just like the best of the space independents do.
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Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche
Directed by: Claire Denis
Other: An A24 release. Rated R for sexual situations, violence (including sexual assault), language and nudity. 110 minutes