Who’s up for a weird, trippy sci-fi movie full of visual spectacle and a cold, shallow story that only makes half-sense? Because if you are, High Life has your fix.
A band of death-row inmates, led by a manipulative doctor with unethical motives (Juliette Binoche), are aboard a ship in the middle-of-nowhere of space with no possibility of returning home, essentially a suicide mission. As tension grows from their situation, the crew members go at each other’s throats until Monte (Robert Pattinson) is alone to take care of his daughter.
High Life is a lot of things, it is bold, vivid, brutal, unrelenting, it provides surreal images which will be ingrained into the audience’s heads, but I think the most relevant description would be disjointed. 50% flashback and 50% present-day, the film chooses a non-linear method for storytelling which further convolutes an already complex plot. There are separate moments which stand out to me, ones that intrigue me or challenge me to think, that give me goosebumps and make me squirm, but these moments fail to culminate into a greater work; the connection between them is limited. High Life believes itself to be unraveling this great mystery it sets up in its opening sequence, uncovering truths regarding human nature along the way, but ultimately builds to nothing and ends on a whimper. The entire film had me waiting for its climax, for the energy to ramp up and something truly significant to happen, but because it is so stuck in the past and what has already happened upon the ship, it never gets there. People die, and some quite violently, but these deaths are not lingered on nor end up having any real implications on the rest of the characters.
Robert Pattinson is one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood, and understandably so. Since his time as everybody’s favorite vampire, he has taken on more indie roles which give less recognition. In a supporting role in 2017’s Lost City of Z, I had taken notice of his strong acting and I’m sure, although I have not seen it, he only further demonstrates his talent in Good Time, which came out later that year. In High Life, Pattinson approaches his character as someone molded by their surroundings, and as an observer. Pattinson treats Monte as parallel to the space around him, cold, quiet, and unforgiving, and as someone who prefers practicality over luxury, survival over death. His contrasting perspective of his situation, seeing it more as a second chance instead of a suicide mission, is what keeps him alive and what differentiates him from the rest of the crew. Pattinson portrays the ex-inmate as someone who is battling their aggressive makeup, if only for his daughter’s sake, through his reserved style of acting which ends up making him exceptionally compelling.
The strongest aspect of this film, as it tends to be with this genre, is its cinematography. Despite the smaller budget, High Life is an impressive film to look at and is well shot. The isolating depiction of space serves to represent the trapping of the crew members by their fate; the film’s toned-down coloration enhances its somber tone. Stuart Staples’ provocative synth score penetrates the senses and weighs on you, some of the stand out moments mentioned earlier are bolstered by the score’s presence.
The first film which comes to mind when comparing High Life is 2001: A Space Odyssey, however, I’ll compare it to last year’s Annihilation instead. Both films are unnerving, style over substance, and simply wack. But Annihilation was more entertaining and grips you better, while High Life is an extreme arthouse sci-fi. 6.5/10