Directed by Claire Denis High Life follows the story of Monte (Robert Pattinson), a man, like the rest of his crew-mates is stuck on a ship hurtling into outer-space. Monte is a reserved man who struggles with his past actions. Throughout this narrative we get to see Monte’s journey through the lens of a non-linear story, in the past, present, and future. So naturally, the burning question would be: “Does the story come together with all these timelines?”… well, sort of. It’s clear that High Life has lots of ambition to be a high concept sci-fi exploring humanity – in some ways it succeeds, but eventually it reveals itself to be more of a character study of a man with regrets and a murky past.
While there was never an expectation that this film would take audiences to new and wondrous worlds or provide a mind-splitting plot twist; it’s still hard to not feel let down by how barren this film ultimately felt. Unfortunately, when the film’s inevitable “twist” is finally revealed, it’s as anticlimactic as the narrative itself. While its easy to judge High Life for pushing its theme of isolation too far; it does an admirable job at portraying the impending feeling of loneliness – how isolation affects each individual, but more specifically, how those individuals each decide to cope with it.
We are however provided with a wider showcase of Robert Pattinson’s acting range, which is very clearly expanded upon in this arthouse sci-fi. What I found was that, aside from its visual prowess, I was truly watching this film for Pattinson’s performance. Pattinson provides a dampened, recluse, and introspective character that has very clearly retreated into the depths of his own psyche. That being said, there are characters in this film that appear to be more interesting that the lead, for example, Dibs, a doctor portrayed by actress Juliette Binoche. Dibs is a character that is much like Monte – one with secrets and intrigue.
Plain and simple, the technical aspects eclipse its narrative. The film features a beautiful use of the camera that captures the experience of living in space better than other related films. This becomes even more impressive when considering its low $1.9 million USD budget, this film acts as a demonstration that you don’t need expensive VFX or practical sets to make sci-fi movies work.
While the set-design on the ship is excellently used as the space is limited, the costume design suffers from uninspired, tacky outfits that feel out-classed by other technical components. The composed score by Tindersticks and Stuart Staples consists of soft eerie pieces that are only briefly used in the film which accompanies the quiet tone of the film. The lack of thematic pieces and larger-than-life themes are designed to make you feel uncomfortable and make the experience more claustrophobic. The sound design doesn’t have much of a chance to show off as other science-fiction films do, but for what it tries to achieve, it does.
Director Claire Denis very clearly has no interest in exploring sci-fi itself, she uses the genre as merely a vessel to tell Monte’s narrative. So yes, this isn’t going to be a film that evokes salivation in the mouths of sci-fi enthusiasts. The complexity in its sci-fi concepts provide about as much intrigue as the desolate expanses of space. All things considered High Life has the propensity to be a film with the title of “love it” or “hate it”. It’s slow, it doesn’t lead anywhere particularly intriguing, but its performances hold it together. Visually enchanting and with a stellar performance by Robert Pattinson – High Life is worthy enough of a single viewing – so long as your expectations aren’t beyond the stars.