Special Effects: B-
There was a moment in High Life where I caught myself thinking, I don’t know what’s happening.
Maybe half an hour I circled back around and thought, I have no idea what’s going on.
In other words, I found this movie difficult to follow. Its clearly cerebral ambitions make it easy to see how critics have generally quite liked it, but also how its box office take has been less than stellar (three weeks since opening, it has yet even to break $1 million). It is plainly a low-budget feature, and it is often beautifully shot considering those constraints, but to my eye there are moments when those constraints hurt it. In one early scene — “early” being a relative term given the seemingly endless time it takes before the title card appears — the main character, Monte (Robert Pattinson), takes all of the remaining crew members, all in a cryogenic sleep, and chucks them out the air lock of his ship. Each one of them falls directly down, as if gravity exists in space.
I’m no physics expert here — I only passed my college physics class at all because of a massive grading curve — so perhaps someone can clarify this for me. Monte mentions in voice-over narration at one point that the ship is in a constant state of acceleration, which has the effect of creating gravity for them. That part makes sense, but what of the poor souls Monte chucks out the door? Even if they are thrown out into space, since they are already in the same amount of acceleration of the ship, wouldn’t they still appear just to float away? Or would the laws of motion change once they’re outside the ship, and thus appear to fall away quickly?
Under different circumstances, such questions about a film could be argued as irrelevant. But, this is not just science fiction, but high-minded at that: High Life has intellectual ideas, and as such some across — to me, anyway — as a low-rent 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I will concede that High Life does a lot of things fairly well, chief among them being obtusely intellectual in tone. The problems I have with it are not just that it is hard to follow, but that whatever it does succeed at, plenty of other movies before it have done better.
So what’s the point, really? This is director and co-writer Claire Denis’s first English language film, but otherwise she is a longtime veteran of filmmaking. Apparently Robert Pattinson long had interest in doing this film. High Life might have done better if only its star had an ounce of charisma. He and Keanu Reeves should do a movie together sometime, maybe a buddy-cop flick about two guys who can only pretend they know how to emote.
The concept behind High Life is intriguing, at least: everyone on this ship is a convicted felon, prisoners tricked into taking an exploratory trip into space with the intent of harnessing the energy of a black hole. They left thinking they’d eventually come back, but they will not; along the way, they become the subjects of sexual experiments.
This is where things get weird. The ship’s apparent medical officer, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), herself a felon who once murdered her own children, is “obsessed with reproduction,” and collects regular sperm samples from the men on board. It’s never made clear why, but they aren’t allowed to have old fashioned sex with any of the women. They get to use “the box” as a masturbatory tool to release their sexual frustrations. This applies to Dr. Dibs herself, and she is the one character featured in a bizarre, ritualistic sex scene between her and the contraption.
Monte, it seems, has chosen abstinence as a mark of strength — including the denial of his sperm sampling.
Pretty much all of this stuff is told in flashback, as High Life begins and ends with Monte and his daughter, Willow, living on the ship in isolation. How he gets said daughter is another rather weird bit: I’ll only say here that it involves Dr. Dibs walking down a hallway with Monte’s semen cupped in her hands. At the beginning, Willow is a baby; at the end, she is a teenager (Jessie Ross). I fear I may have missed a key element to the very end, as they head off into the sunset (or black hole, whatever), but . . . I fell asleep. I honestly don’t think it matters.
This is as a sort of myster-scifi-horror movie, and it’s a very paced, quiet one at that. If you want to see that done in a compelling way, go watch a brunette Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin — a movie I also found imperfect but at least worth seeing, and worthy of recommending to others, depending on their tastes. High Life seems like a movie that believes itself to be something greater than the sum of its parts. I walked away feeling like it was just unfinished parts.