As contemplative and unsettling as it is, High Life struggles to develop its bleak sci-fi vision into an engaging and cohesive piece of cinema.
He may always be Edward Cullen to the generation that grew up watching the Twilight movies (and fittingly so), but for years now Robert Pattinson has branched out into the world of arthouse filmmaking, collaborating with directors like David Cronenberg, the Safdie Brothers, and James Gray along the way. For his latest offering, High Life, Pattinson joins forces with celebrated French filmmaker Claire Denis, marking her english-language debut after more than thirty years of documentary and fictional storytelling. The resulting movie is a decidedly moody and chilly space odyssey that clearly has a lot on its mind, but gets a little lost in its own naval-gazing. As contemplative and unsettling as it is, High Life struggles to develop its bleak sci-fi vision into an engaging and cohesive piece of cinema.
Pattinson stars in High Life as Monte, whom the movie introduces as one of two survivors aboard a spaceship that's headed for a black hole, along with his infant daughter Willow. The film (which Denis also cowrote) is reminiscent of Andrei Takovsky's Solaris in the way it drops viewers into its sci-fi setting with little to no setup, then gradually peels back the curtain to reveal the dark and disturbing events that gave rise to the status quo. Indeed, the movie's first act - which consists of Monte interacting with Willow and keeping the ship running smoothly, intercut with flashbacks to his past life both on earth and in space - is the most compelling portion of High Life overall. It also does a good job of laying the groundwork for the depressing revelations to come, be it by showing Monte disposing of his deceased crew-mates' bodies or providing glimpses of the terrible event that set him on his path when he was only a child.
Unfortunately, things start to get messy from there. In time, High Life reveals that Monte was part of a group of convicts who agreed to participate in a dangerous space mission to try and extract energy from a black hole. Along the way, however, the prisoners were experimented on by the attending Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), as part of her attempt to produce a human child in outer space through artificial insemination. The film aspires to explore themes about the horror of sex and reproduction in these segments, but comes off feeling somewhat aimless in its attempts to get at deeper ideas about the dark side of human nature and existence. Something similar could be said for the movie's dystopian portrayal of a human civilization on the brink of oblivion; it feels incomplete, as though High Life were more interested in simply dwelling on the darkness of it story and scenarios without actually saying anything of meaning about them.
Part of the problem is that High Life feels stuck somewhere between being a grounded, hard sci-fi film, and more of an impressionist take on the genre. It's far from the only recent movie to try and blend the two approaches (Alex Garland's Takovsky-esque Annihilation did something similar), but its lo-fi aesthetic has a tendency to clash with its more poetic flourishes, like the moments where it eschews gritty realism in its portrayal of space - a place where you can die horrifically by taking one wrong step - in order to go for something more surreal, like the visual of bodies falling in zero-gravity. The film's editing is equally intriguing, yet infuriating, in the way that it often jump-cuts across vast periods of time to focus on key developments (like a baby being born or someone committing a sudden act of violence) that may or may not advance the plot. Clearly, High Life wants to be a challenging viewing experience, but its attempts to be provocative and jarring get tedious after a while, with no clear throughlines to latch onto.
Pattinson, for his part, delivers a fine performance as Monte, a protagonist whose actions often speak louder than his words (or, rather, his voiceover, which is where the majority of his dialogue comes from). The same goes for his costars here, especially Mia Goth as Boyse - a rebellious convict who expresses open disdain for Dr. Dibs and her goals - and Binoche as the not-so-good doctor herself. At the same time, many of the supporting characters seem to exist solely for High Life to mistreat or torment in whatever fashion it deems fit, in the same cruel way that Dibs "experiments" on the convicts or viciously robs them of their agency. Again, that's clearly the intention to some degree, but it becomes tiring to watch in a film that seems more interested in showing that people can be bizarrely savage without having much else to say on the matter.
At the end of the day, though, High Life might be one of those divisive films that some moviegoers find hauntingly atmospheric, while others find it to be dreary and unnerving, but not a whole lot else. Still, it's an interesting movie whichever way you cut it, and will surely please Denis' longtime fans the most - if only because they're well acquainted to the filmmaker's style by now, and know exactly what they're getting into here. Those who've largely enjoyed Pattinson's recent ventures into the realm of high-brow filmmaking may want to give this one a look at some point too, though it's not necessarily one that they need to rush out and see in theaters. At the very least, this should give cinephiles something to talk about while they wait and see what Pattinson's gotten himself into next by signing up for Christopher Nolan's new blockbuster.
High Life is now playing in select areas and will expand to more theaters over the forthcoming weeks. It is 110 minutes long and is rated R for disturbing sexual and violent content including sexual assault, graphic nudity, and for language.
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