High Life: A Visual Sci-Fi Slow Boil

by Ben Martin

For years, I’ve heard the name of French filmmaker and writer Claire Denis (The Stars at Noon) bandied about in cinematic circles. Despite Denis’ being a renowned and prolific director, I never have gotten around to checking out any of her films. That is, until the recent home video release of the sci-fi drama, High Life (2019). (Not to be confused with the three other movies of the same name produced over the years.)

High Life tells the story of a man named Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his infant daughter. The pair are the only survivors on a space station that’s floating in the recesses of deep space. As if living in such a situation wouldn’t be difficult enough for one’s mental state; Monte must ensure his and his daughter’s survival. Thus, he spends his days managing synthetic vegetation, as well as the space station’s water supply. All while taking care of his child and desperately attempting to reach anyone else who might be that deep into space.

As I mentioned up top, this film is my first exposure to Claire Denis’ work. Fittingly, the movie in review is also the director’s first crack at the sci-fi genre. However, it would be nearly impossible to know that’s the case as it seems the director is seasoned in her love of the science-fiction. High Life is an old school, visually-rich, slow-burning sci-fi film. One which is methodically paced, much in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Not that High Life is anywhere close to the masterpiece that 2001 is, mind you. Still, Denis manages to embrace the classic elements of sci-fi. Thus, if you’re a fan of the old-fashioned, traditional style of the genre, I would recommend giving High Life a go.

High Life is a visual treat in both look and tone. The film’s cinematography works in tandem with its production design and set decoration to create an absolute sense of loneliness, desolation, and despair. This sense of despair permeates the first half of the narrative; thus making the movie an immersive experience. Alas, the film’s immersive nature becomes one of tedium in its second half. 

During this portion of the movie, High Life becomes a series of flashbacks, which fill in the movie’s backstory. A backstory which would be interesting if it were not predicated on themes the sci-fi genre has focused on time-and-time again such as: using convicts and the disenfranchised for experiments; fertility or lack thereof; and the disgusting notion of viewing women strictly as incubators for children. Of course, using such genre themes would be perfectly fine if High Life utilized them in a new or creative; but it does not. Hence, the narrative and its pacing become a strain on one’s attention span.

Despite the latter half of High Life being a rough sit, the cast here is superb the whole way through. Robert Pattinson is particularly good in his lead role as Monte. (I admit that I don’t think Pattinson is right for his titular role in The Batman.) However, the fact is that Pattinson’s a talented dramatic actor, which he once again proves in this movie. The other standout in the cast is André Benjamin, who portrays Tcherny in the film. In the end, I was only intrigued by half of High Life. Still, I have to recommend the fan to any hardcore sci-fi fans due to its respect for the genre and craft on display.

High Life (2019) is Currently Available on Digital HD, Blu-Ray, & DVD.

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