2019 | rated R | starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth| directed by Claire Denis | 1 hr 53 mins |
An often quoted criticism of Michael Bay’s embarrassing Armageddon is the question, wouldn’t it be easier to train astronauts to be oil drillers than to train oil drillers to be astronauts? A similar question ran through my head during Claire Denis cerebral sci fi sex opera High Life. Wouldn’t it be easier to find astronauts willing to sacrifice their life for scientific discovery then it would be to turn over a space station tasked with scientific discovery on the edge of a black hole to a bunch of hardened prisoners on a suicide mission? But hey, then we wouldn’t have a movie with a micro society built by criminals.
To call High Life, Solaris meets Con Air doesn’t even do justice to how bizarre it gets. Denis (of Let the Sunshine In and the movie critics conveniently forget Trouble Every Day) has proved fascinating in her exploration of different genres and High Life is Denis almost, almost, flirting with a mainstream production. Denis builds the framework of the film like Tarkovsky’s space opera set in an environment cold, sterile and mechanical, quiet except for the humming of machines and moving at a glacial pace. We open with an intriguing, perfectly hopeless premise, Pattinson (as convicted killer Monte) caring for an infant child while maintaining an empty space station. The film drops back to show us the rest of the crew, how Monte ended up alone and where the child came from.
With criminals alone in space, the threat of rape lies around every corner. Soon the film cracks through the genre’s mechanics and becomes all about fluids: the water keeping them alive, the mist keeping garden growing, the sperm and bodily fluids leaking from Juliette Binoche’s weirdo pregnancy experiments. Binoche’s Dibs is the film’s most interesting and curious character. In High Life the person who is seemingly the smartest and most in control is also a child killer who goes to increasingly horrific lengths to keep her experiment alive. The film announces itself loudest in a centerpiece bit where Dibs (I would be shocked if it wasn’t a body double) disappears into a darkened tin can orgazmatron machine and rides it like a mechanical bull in an S&M dungeon for quite a while the machine seems to collect all the fluids from all the residents. Denis keeps sex front and center here, rare for a sci fi film. There is a line out the door to use the orgazmatron.
This is a high concept minimalist, patience-testing art picture masquerading as a genre film. Dialog is appropriately sparse, no artificial character arcs are ticked off and the movie moves at a hypnotically slow pace, I had no problem with that, but it’s also pretty hollow aside from it’s misery porn. Denis slow dips us in hopelessness well, but Pattinson is flat and the story has little compelling drive. It has even less science and psychology and without black hole thrills it becomes indulgent. Still Denis’ sci fi comment is an interesting building block in a genre mashing career.