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High Life (2019)
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by Jay Seaver

"An intriguing combination winds up a bit of a mismatch."
3 stars

"High Life" plays like the sort of science fiction movie made by people who think they're above the genre - striking to look at and packed with interesting performances and coming at certain tropes sideways with enough confidence that one doesn't want to question the logic of it too much. It's a bit better than that, certainly good enough not to be dismissed, but it's just as certainly the sort of art-house sf whose appearance of profundity comes as much from being aloof as from being sharp or insightful.

Admittedly, my reacting to the film in such a manner is snobbish and cynical in its own way, indicative of my own preferences as to what science fiction should be, but this is the sort of movie that encourages that. It's set on a spaceship that never feels like anything so much as the set of a stage production meant to suggest a spaceship with adorably retro equipment, always prioritizing familiarity rather than having form follow function. The story skips over some of the most interesting situations to explore, and dances around one of the more potentially uncomfortable ones, which is saying something, considering what filmmaker Claire Denis will run with. The film has characters who are strange and extreme but not exactly interesting for it, draining the pulp story they're involved in of much actual drama. The underlying ideas and plot don't fit together well.

The story is itself kind of thin, although it opens with the sort of premise that could be interesting from close examination: A young man (Robert Pattinson) alone on a spaceship except for an infant, traveling on a years-long mission at a significant fraction of the speed of light toward the nearest black hole, making a report presumably broadcast back to the Solar System every night in exchange for twenty-four more hours of life support. If that seems like an unusual crew for interstellar probe #7, it's not the one the ship started with; Monte was one of a number of death-row inmates given a supposed second chance as both the ship's maintenance crew and subjects for Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is trying to find a way to overcome the issues that have thus far made conception, childbirth, and infancy in space fraught with danger for both mother and child.

It's a stupid situation if authenticity is meant to be of any import, designed to fail in every possible way from the apparent lack of any sort of authority to keep the crew of violent criminals focused and in line, the apparent willingness to just throw what must be an expensive investment (and a number of lives) away if a bit of paperwork isn't done on time, and the utter lack of concern for workplace safety or constructing a decent experiment (which, as usual, means "doing vaguely science-y stuff" with the hope of learning something). Of course, "stupid and wasteful" does not mean impossible by any means, in life or in fiction, and even impossible is not a bad thing; at its best, Denis can evoke the feeling of a dark, futuristic fairy tale. Some of the most striking images are inspired by renderings of the universe distorted at its extremes, a reminder that the universe can be uncaring and even hostile but also contain beauty and wonder to match the baby learning to walk on an empty spaceship. There's some questionable material as well - the Magic Negro stuff in this movie is crazy, with the older black man literally disappearing once he has imparted the necessary wisdom to the young white lead.

There are certainly some fine performances, though. Robert Pattinson holds the film down from start to finish, navigating the way the audience needs to like Monte for his attempts to be a good dad in a difficult situation but also someone who must have been monster enough to be sentenced to death. He's just dangerous enough underneath an exterior that has remained cynical if mellowed somewhat with structure. Juliette Binoche plays an interesting sort of mad scientist, her obsessions, manias, and crimes tied together in memorable fashion - the exposition as other characters describe her is clunky, but she walks a great line between smart/focused and maniacal that makes her something of a head-scratcher but not an ambiguous mystery. They're an intriguingly complementary pair, enough so that one wishes they were in something a little more solid. There's also some really nice work from Jessie Ross as Monte's baby grown to her teen years; she and Denis have a strong enough handle on what this kid who has grown up under strange conditions might be like, enough to make one regret that there wasn't more time spent on that. There's a story there that's clearly important in the end but hasn't been given the proper time to establish itself.

"High Life" is undeniably a Claire Denis movie, unusual mainly in that her observational nature has been trained on a completely imaginary situation, and the fact that this situation doesn't always sell itself creates some friction. It's not among her best or particularly impressive as science fiction, but it's at least worth satisfying one's curiosity as to how those things intersect.

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originally posted: 04/03/19 14:51:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 New York Film Festival For more in the 2018 New York Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/26/20 Marty The movie took risks, some slowly paid off. Not engaging enough. 3 stars
4/20/19 Bob Dog All sci-fi, even crazy artsy sci-fi, is good sci-fi 4 stars
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  05-Apr-2019 (R)
  DVD: 09-Jul-2019

  10-May-2019 (18)

  19-Apr-2019 (MA)
  DVD: 09-Jul-2019

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