IN SELECTED CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 113 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A spaceship is heading towards a black hole. It contains ex-con Monte, a baby named Willow he’s struggling to care for, and some crew members on life support who he has to throw into space when the life support runs out. What events have happened to cause this strange situation? It seems that, some time before, a group of criminals serving death sentences were sent on a mission in space to extract energy from a black hole, and that also on the ship was Dr. Dibs, who was fixated on creating a child through artificial insemination, but had yet to find success….
High Life‘s story is told in a non-linear fashion, flashing back after twenty minutes or so to tell us how things became the way they now are, then returning back to the present near the end, which hopefully will explain why my synopsis of the first half hour or so seems confused. But then this rather irritating piece of cinema is a confused piece anyway. I gather that many critics like it and have even found considerable meaning. I’m afraid that I saw little more than what might happen if somebody desperate to get laid got stoned while watching Silent Running or the original version of Solaris and then decided to make a movie there and then in his or her house while still high and totally gagging for it. It’s the worst kind of ‘art film’ that thinks things like terrible editing between scenes, refusing to explain almost anything, atrocious dialogue, shoddy acting from everyone except the two main leads, and seeming to deliberately appear as cheap and ugly as possible rather than trying to do the very best to stretch the budget and make things look good, are plus points. It’s the kind of film where – well – here’s an example. The ship is approaching a black hole and somebody takes a shuttle into it and perishes. It seems like the ship is also on course for the black hole, but then we jump forward quite a few years and the ship is still approaching the same black hole but is about the same distance from it. Huh? So we’re supposed to believe that this moving ship has stayed in virtually the same place in space for many years. I’m sorry but this isn’t fascinatingly weird, oblique storytelling where we’re invited to either try to interpret the strangeness of what’s happening on screen or to just bask in it, it’s just rubbish plain and simple, though director Claire Denis [well, critics are often more inclined to praise a film from a female filmmaker, I’m sorry but it’s true] is clever enough to know that pretentious types will ignore that kind of thing because, you know, it all means something and meaning, not presentation, is more important.
Saying all that, the opening section is pretty good. It’s extremely slow moving, but kind of hypnotic if you’ll willing to get into it. Monte is first seen repairing the ship from the outside, but Willow’s cries cause him to drop his tool into space. The next few scenes show life inside the ship, with Monte clearly having been through a great deal and not always coping well with having to look after a small child who just won’t stop crying. There are some nice details like Monte recycling his pee and poo, it feels as if Denis and her co-screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau [with whom she’s collaborated on her other films, none of which I feel like now seeing] have really thought about and even researched what life in this situation could be like. And Robert Pattinson is superb, so natural and definitely possessing a compelling, brooding kind of presence. What a good actor this guy, so awful in the Twilight films [much like Kirsten Stewart who’s also become very good], has become. It’s kind of remarkable. I guess it just shows what he [very understandably] really thought of that horrible franchise, while I certainly didn’t wish that Vincent Gallo, who was intended to star in this film when Denis first conceived it back in the early 2000s, had starred. The storytelling is also good for a while as we’ll shown more and more hints of what has happened before, culminating in the strong, almost surreal image of several dead bodies slowly floating downwards in space. And then the title comes up, a title which would been better off being ‘THE END’ considering the poor quality of what comes after it.
So we have some criminals being sent to extract energy from a black hole. How on earth they’re supposed to actually do this is hard to work out, seeing as we don’t see anything on this small, flimsy looking craft that looks capable of taking energy from something that sucks in everything that enters even the outskirts of it. Maybe Dr. Dibb’s acres of hair are intended to have something to do with it? Juliette Binoche’s character is introduced in an extraordinary fashion. She enters the Fuckbox, a chamber the ship’s inhabitants climb into for some sexual satisfaction, and submits herself to a well-endowed Sybian device along with trapeze handles to add to her bucking pleasure, the camera lingering on Binoche’s bare back for what seems like ages as strands of her long hair cutting across the white flesh. I can see why an actress like Binoche would want to take this role. It’s adventurous and allows her to go to some dark and perverse places. I personally love it when stars, especially female, do this. But we’re not told why she’s trying to make a radiation proof baby [I’m assuming earth is dying], and never get to understand her as a character. Just some hints might have been nice, we don’t need everything spelled out. we’re not all idiots. But no, nothing. A late revelation concerning Dibs achieves nothing. But Binoche is fantastic, clearly having a lot of fun doing dodgy things like raping a man while he’s sedated [surely his penis would remain “sedated” too?] and generally chewing the scenery. It’s just as well, because Pattinson is soon relegated to mostly being an observer and narrating, the straight person in a sea of lunatics.
We soon get a load of overt exposition, some of it by tertiary characters that we never see again, while secondary characters tend to have interesting stories but are never explored in any meaningful way. Seemingly unimportant scenes are lingered upon but bits that might, you know, tell us some stuff, are often cut away from before they’ve come to their natural end. I get that this was intended, rather than being just bad filmmaking by folk who don’t really know what they’re doing, but it soon becomes hugely frustrating, especially considering when it becomes apparent that this is little more than a pretentious version of that not-so-new story about outcasts in a deadly surrounding, with most people starting to kill each other while a few others stick to the bitter end fulfilling their duties. Pattinson remains good, but we never get close to his character, and, come the conclusion that you’ve seen in some much better films, I didn’t give a toss, while it’s so poorly done it seems like the film just stops. In fact we never seem to be asked to care about anyone except for Monte’s only friend on the ship Tcherny, who spends most of his time in a garden because it reminds him of Earth. These moments, as well as reminding us of Silent Running, offer a welcome change from the unappealing claustrophobia of all the other interiors. No variety, no color, no exploration, nothing interesting or captivating. I guess the idea of throwing some old fish tank filters into a few rooms with padded walls and calling it a space ship set does amusingly recall ultra-cheapie ’50s B- movies, but then those films still tried to entertain rather than bore or annoy. A section of the film where nearly everyone just yells at each other is especially tiresome.
Pattinson’s character is celibate for ill-defined reasons, yet after being sexually abused is soon shown with a sexual partner, which is hardly good in what it suggests, but then again this is yet another one of those films where sex is essentially joyless and either a means to an end or a simple past time. Denis does give us one moment when things suddenly erupt into brutality as one man tries to rape a woman and punches the faces in of two other women who try to help his victim. I wouldn’t be surprised if many critics would call the scene misogynist and/or unnecessary if the film had been directed by a man. It does seem a bit out of place in such a sedate film, but is probably realistic – though, horrible as it sounds, I couldn’t help but want something bad to happen to Mia Goth’s character considering her stupid mugging throughout. She’s strange, this actress, either really good or really bad. One thing that is good is the music score by Stuart Staples and ‘Tindersticks’, with offbeat, ’70s-style psychedelic guitar-led compositions alternating with very long John Carpenter synth-chords doing their very best to back the material. And actually some of the effects, like a practically-done face melting, are well done too.
If High Life is saying anything at all, it seems to be asking us how far should we go in continuing the human race, and telling us [yet again] how humans are the threat to their own existence. And you could all but take it as an origin story for Morbius and Altaira from Forbidden Planet [I won’t explain this just in case you do decide to brave this film] – which is interesting. Denis often recalls Andrei Tarkovsky, and his Stalker as much as Solaris, but entirely lacks Tarkovsky’s genuine existentialism, philosophical weight and quality of filmmaking, while Dark Star tells us far more about the human condition – and manages to do it while still being infinitely more enjoyable. I suppose High Life could be deep and meaningful if watched high – but then most films probably are.