Claire Denis’s English-language debut, the high minded sci-fi film “High Life” continues her attempt at exploring and rather transcending genre films, “Trouble Every Day” was her terrain into horror, and “Bastards” was a modern neo-noir, and even “Let the Sunshine In” could be viewed as a romantic comedy that takes a deconstructionist turn. Her new film, about a group of prisoners being used as lab rats in a space exploration, is very much in the vein of the more cerebral and art-house sci-fi films like “The Man Who Fell to Earth”, “Solaris”, “Under the Skin”, and of course “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and like those films Claire Denis has turned in another essential and masterfully made artwork that is easily one of the finest sci-fi films crafted as of late. The film will also remind you of John Carpenters “Dark Star” and even “Silent Running”.
Replacing spectacle with thought and ideas, Denis instead allows the tension to build with a eerie mood and atmosphere of her characters attempting to survive in a eerie and hopeless futuristic setting that is deeply metaphorical and abstract. The film is another landmark in Denis’s film career, who’s filmography includes such masterfully made films as “Beau Travail”, “The Intruder”, “35 Shots of Rum”, “White Material”, “Bastards”, and “Let the Sunshine In”. Denis finally gets the opportunity to work with American film talent, Robert Pattison, who has now taken on more challenging and complex roles where he has recently worked on such films like “The Rover”, “Good Time”, and “Cosmopolis”, Pattison is starting to become an art-house actor that has been able to transform and wipe his slate clean from the “Twilight” franchise.
“High Life” begins far away into the future and into the life of its main protagonist, Monte (Pattinson), a convict who is now a space astronaut that lives aboard a massive space vessel that is deteriorating, messy, and falling apart. Monte is very attentive to a small child, a girl named Willow (Scarlett Lindsay), in which Monte shows great signs of compassion and care for her, and it also helps that Denis vision and detail immerses the viewer into this world that is deep into space that invokes truly vivid details of what the future looks like. Often in science fiction films, space vessels and ships are elegant, highly technical, and often ran by some type of command chain all done with Hollywood conformity. Here Denis makes the vessel feel uncomfortable, scuzzy, and more harrowing than most sci-fi films.
The aesthetics of the film almost feel like we were given surveillance or documentary footage from a time traveler from the future. The bond between the Monty and Willow is truly affecting and some of the warmest stuff Denis has ever staged. In fact it echoes some of the intimate family elements that were found in Denis “35 Shots of Rum”, which is easily the greatest film of her impressive oeuvre. By showing a grown man attempting to hold his sanity together by affection shows how man’s masculinity all have a protective side of compassion, care, and love as well.
Denis, along with fellow co-writers Jean-Pol Fargeau (Who often co-writes with Denis) and Geoff Cox explore and unfold with flashbacks what led to the ships drudgery. The ship lacks real authority, as Lars Eidinger is the vessel’s captain who appears to be oblivious and aloof to what’s going on. The real commander of the shop appears to be Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who coerces others into morally questionable experiments while even doing experiments on herself as she runs tests on sperm to see if a baby can be born from a lab . We also have other crew members on the ship that consist of Mia Goth, Andre Benjamin aka Andre 3000 from Outkast, and Jessie Ross. The film unravels with flashbacks the treachery the ships crew endured from intellectual discourse and of course human nature, and what led to Monte’s desolation in space.
By using a fragmented and dreamy narrative, as Denis often does, “High Life” becomes more of a translucent, elusive and visual experience more than a traditional film experience that consists of story of arcs or good facing off against evil in space. Denis along with writers take their time filling in the spaces with the narrative, and the result is a highly sophisticated, terrifying, and even erotic experience that is meant to experience and process on a visceral level like a Kubrick or Lynch film.
Comparisons of any high-minded sci-fi film always gets compared to “2001: A Space Odyssey”, however Denis here earns that right. Everything from the confined feeling of the space vessel, to how sensory it is to lush sounds and imagery invokes an elliptical narrative that will take a lot to process upon viewing. All around, Claire Denis has made a deeply obtuse film that generates great mystery and perplexities that will generate thoughtful discussions afterwards about space, human survival, and science. Denis asks provocative questions about the state of humanity, and rather human progression as a whole.