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High Life

I’ve been saying for weeks now that the pre-Avengers: Endgame release window was a dumping ground, but the week immediately before A-Day… sweet Jesus. Our new releases for this frame are a cinematic sermon made to scrape up some Easter box-office dollars; and a Mexican folk tale adapted by white filmmakers into an uninspired jump scare flick.

I’m pretty sure that this is exactly the kind of weekend in mainstream cinema that A24 was built for.

High Life opens with Monte (Robert Pattinson) attempting repairs on a spaceship that’s falling apart despite his efforts. He’s completely alone on the ship, save only for an infant girl (Willow, played as a baby by Scarlett Lindsey and later by the teenaged newcomer Jessie Ross). We see a day in Monte’s life on the ship, capped off with Monte going to a cryogenics chamber where a whole bunch of people are lying dead. He then proceeds to stuff all the corpses into spacesuits and send them out an airlock.

Cue the title card. Ten minutes in. This is a movie that very deliberately takes its time. Lucky, then, that things pick up in a great goddamn hurry when they finally do pick up.

By and by, we eventually learn that lifetime convicts and death row inmates were given the choice to voluntarily submit themselves as test subjects for science (a practice that’s ethically dubious at best). In this case, the volunteers signed up for a voyage to the nearest black hole, to see if its gravity can be harnessed into a new and unlimited power source. It’s never explained how this energy is supposed to be sent back to Earth, but it does become immediately obvious that this was always meant to be a one-way trip and the experiment was fully expected to be lethal.

In the meantime, there’s a secondary experiment. The de facto leader of our intrepid crew is Dr. Dibs, a mad scientist played by Juliette Binoche. She’s taken an interest in the question of whether human reproduction is possible in the harsh conditions of space, and she’s therefore set up a battery of tests regarding the physical and sexual wellness of each crew member aboard.

With all of this in mind, let’s backtrack. We already know there’s an infant on board the ship, which means that the experiments must have been at least partially successful. But we don’t know what it took to conceive or deliver the child, we don’t know who the mother is, and we don’t even know for sure if Monte is the father. And then of course, there’s the question of how everyone except for Monte and the newborn ended up dead, and why there are one or two characters who seem to be missing from the cryogenics chamber. Also, we’ve got the first child ever born in space, raised in a tin can with only a (surrogate?) father for company — what’s she going to grow up like?

The beginning is so fucked-up and the ending is so bleak, how could you not be interested to stick around and see what happens?

As might be expected from a movie that clearly owes so much of its existence to 2001: A Space Odyssey, this movie is trippy as fuck. The plot isn’t presented in any kind of linear or logical fashion, but tends to jump between settings and time periods in an impressionistic kind of way. It’s not always easy to keep track of, especially in the first third or so, when the filmmakers are still taking their merry time toward explaining the plot. And of course that’s not even getting started on all the mindfuck visuals that come in when we finally get to play around with the black hole.

It’s not even easy to make out any kind of a coherent theme, the whole movie is such an ephemeral ink blot. But if I had to take a stab at it, I’d say the most prominent theme is the absurdly futile state of floating out in space with nothing to do but reproduce and die. It’s about the desperate need for attention while alone in a void, the need to feel like we have a purpose in spite of all evidence to the contrary, and faith that we are at least loved and appreciated by someone we’ll never get to see or hear from. So basically, this crew is a microcosm of the entire human race.

It’s not easy to describe why this movie works as well as it does, since… well, frankly, it shouldn’t work as well as it does. But mostly, it’s because the strength of this movie is in its presentation. The stream-of-consciousness pacing and editing work far more effectively in the moment than I could describe here, and the visuals are nicely compelling throughout. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to have a movie that focuses so much on visual storytelling, giving the audience enough clues to keep everything straight without the need for hand-holding.

And then of course we have the cast. Robert Pattinson turns in yet another fearless arthouse performance. Ditto for Juliette Binoche, who gets two of the most bizarre sex scenes I’ve ever witnessed. And one of them is a straight-up sexual assault. Yes, the movie goes there.

I could also give shout-outs to Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin, and all the other superlative performers in this amazing cast. But for me personally, it was Jessie Ross and Scarlett Lindsey who ended up stealing the show. Ross is a charming young newcomer who kicks the whole movie into a new gear when she finally shows up. As for Lindsey, I’m genuinely impressed with the uncanny performance the filmmakers were able to coax out of this infant.

The world-building is another huge part of why this movie works so well. It’s genuinely impressive how the camerawork, editing, and production design all draw the audience in, very nicely demonstrating all the different facets of life on this ship and how the ship works. Speaking of production design, I honestly kind of like how the ship itself is this giant block — given the premise, I doubt a ton of time or effort would be put into the aesthetics of a one-way shuttle manned by death-row convicts. Likewise, the space suits are nicely spartan in design, though we can plainly see the helmets are not airtight in the back.

High Life is another one of those bizarre arthouse movies that simply exists on its own terms. It’s beautifully crafted and superbly acted, but it also has an unorthodox presentation and a premise that’s varying shades of fucked-up. It’s certainly a good movie, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or pleasant to watch. I have absolutely no idea how you’ll react to this one, but I can guaran-goddamn-tee that at least you won’t be bored.

Also, did I mention that there are graphic depictions of sexual assault? Because I think that bears repeating.

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