The best thing about going into a movie blind is that you really don’t know what you’re going to get. All I knew about High Life was that it was a sci-fi film starring Robert Pattinson and released by A24 Studios.
Considering the avant garde nature of some of A24’s past releases (Swiss Army Man, Ex Machina, and Moonlight to name a few), I figured I’d at least walk away from the movie with something to ruminate over. Considering the avant garde nature of some of Pattinson’s post Twilight film roles (Good Time, The Rover, and Cosmopolis) I figured I’d at least walk away with a decent performance by an actor willing to be more than a late ’00s brooder.
Considering these two entities embarking on a sci-fi tale, I figured I would be OK with how I spent a couple hours in a darkened theater. Honestly, the only thing that had me unsure was the film’s title. (I was thinking that it had everything to do with visions of wet bottles of the Champagne of beers and Steve Winwood smiling behind a piano.)
If you prefer to walk in unaware of anything, consider the next few sentences pseudo-spoilers: A man (Robert Pattinson) and his baby daughter are the last survivors of a failed space mission. Via the fractured narrative, we learn about the crew members, including a sinister doctor (Juliette Binoche). As a crew of violence-prone former inmates begin to fray so do the mission’s plans. Things go from bad to worse before they get better. Pseudo-spoilers over.
To expound further is to deflate the film’s mystery. There are scenes that, in retrospect, seem more figurative than literal. There are moments of true beauty, but to get there we must sit through quite a few scenes of bugnuttery and scenes of distress. Rather than dance around it and dress it up in flowery words like “bugnuttery” and “distress,” let me just refer to the MPAA’s rating: “Rated R for disturbing sexual and violent content including sexual assault, graphic nudity, and for language.”
After emerging from the theater, I looked up the film and it made more sense once I saw who was listed as the driving force behind it. Claire Denis, the director known for such transgressive works as Chocolat, Trouble Every Day, and Beau Travail, leads us through the bleak corridors of the doomed spacecraft that recall the cold frankness of Stanley Kubrick, the body horror perversity of David Cronenberg, and the psychedelic trippiness of Panos Cosmatos.
The foreboding soundtrack by Stuart Staples matches the desolate cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk. As in most of Denis’ productions, the performances of the crew members (Gloria Obianyo, Ewan Mitchell, Andre Benjamin, and Claire Tran, to name a few) is pretty involved. Most enrapturing though, would be the three focuses of the film: Mia Goth’s portrayal as the troubled Boyse and the aforementioned roles by Pattinson and Binoche.
This film was very good. It wasn’t perfect. Sometimes the fractured narrative was jarring and the dead silences — while intriguing — felt like they threatened the film’s pacing at times. Like 50 percent of A24’s output, it’s not for everyone — particularly those who like their movies more straight forward with regards to characters, character arcs, and general storytelling techniques.
I’m guessing there is a science fiction films-set-in-space scale. If there is, on one end of it sits films like Star Wars and Alien while the other end sits movies like Andrei Tarkovsky’s original Solaris and 2001:A Space Odyssey. Suffice it to say, there are no lasers or space battles in this film. It hues closer to the ambiguity of the Kubrick arena, albeit a bit gloopier at times.
High Life is like any human being. There is a beating heart at the core of this film. You just have to dig through moments of kinkiness, brutality, and haunting despair to get to it.
If you can, catch High Life on the big screen where the film’s sounds, visuals, and mood will do Denis’ film justice.
High Life begins playing at the Terrace on Fri. April 26.
For those who’d prefer to have a little more before stepping into the dark theater confines here’s the trailer:
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City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.