Tag Archives: Claire Denis

Review: High Life

Director(s)Claire Denis
Principal CastRobert Pattinson as Monte
Juliette Binoche as Dibs
Mia Goth as Boyse
Jessie Ross as Willow
Release Date2018
Running Time 110 minutes

This slow, non-linearly told, atmospheric ride into space is a one of a kind look into the human condition. Denis is not focused on spectacle or sci-fi hi jinks. Instead, she uses space as an tool to alienate our protagonists, trying to isolate and draw apart the elements that we commonly associate with being a human. The movie is really hard to talk about without some spoilers, so be warned. I won’t talk about anything that isn’t revealed within the first few scenes in the movie, so don’t worry. Nothing important, just enough to help explain the stuff I liked and didn’t. The movie also depicts some fairly dark stuff. If rape/assault bother you, watch with someone who can tell you when those scenes stop.

The story opens up on Monte, a man who’s apparently in charge of taking care of a baby, Willow, on a seemingly empty spacecraft. From there it cuts to Monte in the past, as part of a crew sent to explore black holes. The catch? Each member of the crew is a criminal who’s participating in the mission in lieu of sentencing. Denis isn’t as concerned with keeping up the mystery as some major questions are answered fairly early. The focus of the movie instead is on the human body and the way it responds to different stimuli.

As part of their sentence, the crew members are not allowed to masturbate or have sex. Instead, they must relieve themselves in a sex box, a mysterious object filled with sexual paraphernalia that bring subjects to orgasm and relieves them of their relevant fluids. The scenes involving it are disturbing in how they make sex mechanic and programmable. By stripping such an intimate action of its human element, the story asks us if humanity really has any meaning outside of the composition and arrangement of our organs. Are we just our genitalia, our sweat glands, our eyes, our mouths, etc working together like a biologically pre-programmed machine, unable to do anything worthwhile in this universe or are we creatures that can impact the universe in a way that creates meaning? Are we held back by traditional rules of thinking about ourselves and others or are they the things that keep us grounded and capable of doing anything at all? I won’t spoil the film’s answer (mainly because I think it varies based on how you take the story), but I think the journey it takes to get there is interesting.

I think this is a movie that’ll only continue to grow on me and I’m sure I’m missing a lot of ideas. The movie almost plays like a microcosm of Earth, with a population of radically different individuals trying to work with each other under a draconian set of rules (plug in whatever social system you want; ex: patriarchy, capitalism, prison industrial system) and their subsequent responses to alienation within that system. The way the movie is shot, edited, and presented allow you to to tinker around with different ideas and I think different people can walk away with different meanings.

The movie is gorgeous in its visuals and presentations. There are scenes that genuinely had me feeling upset and wouldn’t leave my head for a while. There’s not too much visceral violence outside of a few assault sequences, but they’re not the focus of the horror. The real scares come the eerie set up and poignant imagery. Blood splattered walls, objects floating outside of the spacecraft, and the beautiful image of a black hole (that shockingly looks like the recently discovered image by the Event Horizon Telescope team) should keep visual audience members enthralled. Despite taking place on a spacecraft, the movie is teeming with colors. Clever use of flashbacks, ship mechanisms, and lighting choices keep each shot feeling distinct and picturesque. There are scenes in the latter half of the movie that are absolutely stunning to watch and should be seen by any fan of the science-fiction genre. In fact, the movie’s presentation of gravity, orbit, black holes, and other phenomena are exquisite and are beautiful to watch play out. It’s a physics marvel.

The lead performances are also great. Pattinson is impressive as Monte. He’s calm and collected and the way he grows along with Willow is remarkable to see. His nickname on the ship is “monk” and he really exudes that aura, staying strong in will and action. The way he’s contrasted with his crew mates makes him all the more interesting and makes his backstory that much more relevant, both from a character arc and thematic view. Binoche does a great job as the lead scientist, Dibs. She’s in charge of collecting the fluids from the crew members and is responsible for ensuring that sexual urges are gratified via the machine. It’s disturbing to watch her ideas come into play, and her fervent obsession in getting what she wants keeps your eyes glued to her whenever she shows up on screen.

Most of my issues come from the way the story is under utilized. There’s a major plot thread that ends up being ignored (in a literal sense) that’s never explained. It makes the entirety of the story’s setup confusing and I wish that it was addressed again at some point. The movie also dumps a lot of exposition, in spite of its excellent use of visual storytelling. These moments fell really out of place and make the movie flow strangely. When the editing is otherwise so crisp, these sequences end up standing out even more. I would rather have just been shown more beautiful images hinting at what happened like what the rest of the movie ended up doing. A lot of these decisions could be argued to be done for the sake of distilling themes at play, but they come off feeling like missed opportunities instead of lean cuts.

Report Card

TLDRHigh Life is a beautiful look into the human condition and our respective place in the universe. It’s slow and methodical, told in non-linear order, and prioritizes eerie atmospheric existential horror over visceral jump scares. If that sounds like something you’d like I highly recommend checking this out. It’s definitely something I plan on checking out again.

Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!