There are moments in High Life that bring to mind Interstellar, Annihilation, even Alien 3. There are others that feel truly unique. The end result is a provocative, intriguing film that will draw your undivided attention in short bursts but ultimately leave you wishing for a more cohesive sum of its disparate parts.
Monte (Robert Pattinson) is a lonely space dweller who appears to be raising his infant daughter Willow on his own. Through flashbacks and various reveals, we discover he’s a murderer who — as a child — killed a friend who killed his dog. He was then convinced to join what ends up being a suicidal space mission where he and other criminals seek to harvest energy from a black hole while being sexually experimented on by the twisted Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche).
If that sounds odd, it’s because it is. Not to mention sparse; the movie doesn’t hand its details over easily. This isn’t a story where plot or character development take center stage; you’ll grasp more from this review than you will after 110 minutes in the theater. This can be an enticing way to parcel out information, but writer-director Claire Denis seems to regard words as impediments rather than benefits. The script feels very much like what it is: a French director’s first film in the English language. Denis is obviously a brilliant filmmaker who has forgotten more about her craft than I’ll ever know, but dialogue does not appear to be her strong suit. None of the words are particularly memorable, and nobody appears comfortable saying them.
That said, High Life is about tone, style, and visuals. It certainly borrows from the sci-fi films that came before it — 2001 leaps to mind — only with little tweaks that make it feel far darker and more depraved. The most striking moment, in a landslide, is our visit with Dr. Dibs into the Box. After she’s finished harvesting her fellow passengers’ seed, she ventures into the sexual fulfillment center that the crew uses to satisfy their desires. Binoche is unflinching here to say the least, and we’re treated to a disturbingly erotic scene that is helped along by the equally disorienting score from Stuart A. Staples.
The cast overall is certainly game for whatever Denis gives them; Binoche, as you might’ve guessed, is equal parts sexy and terrifying. We only get a brief snippet of background as to why she’s so obsessed with insemination, but every line and movement from the brilliant French actress is tinged with desperation and despair. Pattinson is nowhere near as captivating as he was in the underrated Good Time, where he showed range far beyond “brooding vampire,” but he still broods like a champ once again. And while we never get to see much of what André Benjamin can do, he adds some much-needed normalcy to their otherwise-chaotic life in space.
High Life meanders as it comes to a close; some might still be entranced but I was checking my watch. If Denis’s style is up your particular alley — and if you’re more interested in snippets of brilliance than cohesion — this might end up being your favorite film of the year. At the very least, it’ll stick with you for a while.