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Film Review: High Life

17 May 19 words: Alicia Lansom

Claire Denis's slow-paced space drama is a far cry away from the alien-filled adventure films that normally make up the sci-fi genre...

Director: Claire Denis

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin

Running time: 113 mins

In High Life, Robert Pattinson plays Monte, a prisoner who has embarked on a one-way journey to space in order to escape death row. In the opening scenes, we see him looking ill and gaunt, soothing his baby daughter Willow as her cries ring out through an empty space ship. Monte appears to be the only adult alive on the derelict looking vessel, living a somewhat feral existence. His resources appear to be in short supply and with the hardware onboard the ship failing he is taking increasingly drastic measures to save power.

In typical arthouse fashion, the film’s timeline is erratic and we are soon taken back to the start of Monte’s journey. It is here that we learn that a crew of convicts were sent out into space to help solve earth’s energy crisis, with little knowledge of what the trip would require. Accompanying them on their mission is Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a psychopathic scientist with a criminal past of her own, who is obsessed with achieving procreation in space. Through force and manipulation, she spends years attempting to ‘harvest’ healthy foetuses through artificial insemination, which continues to fail due to the atmosphere's high radiation levels.

The problems that plague humankind follow us way beyond earth’s atmosphere.

As a character, Dr Dibs is eerie, calculated and detached, coercing the criminals to partake in her breeding experiments by bribing them with drugs and visits to the space ship’s ‘sex box’. However, some of the inmates manage to resist, including Monte and the young and unruly Boyse (Mia Goth). The spacecraft itself is unlike any from the genre, shown from the outside to be a rigid metal container marked with the number ‘7’. The ship’s interior is similarly bare, featuring little advanced technology, with computers only built to function and minimal equipment beyond basic tools.

There is, however, a nod to the natural world, in the form of a misty makeshift garden. The greenhouse appears to be the only connection to the prisoner’s former lives, along with a set of tapes which play television sequences from Earth. The storyline does not concentrate on why the criminals are heading towards a black hole, or what their mission hopes to achieve once they arrive at their destination. Instead, it chooses to focus on the value of human life, and what that means when societal norms and morals no longer exist.

In comparison to sci-fi epics such as Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, or Damien Chazelle’s First Man, Denis’s High Life gives a quieter and more morbid depiction of outer space. Her exploration into human behaviour is an interesting take on the genre, however, the violent and grotesque imagery present in the film make it an increasingly difficult watch. Overall, High Life depicts the dark and unsettling side of space travel, but above all else, it shows us that the problems that plague humankind follow us way beyond earth’s atmosphere.

Did you know? Claire Denis's idea to create a baby in space came after she read about physicist Stephen Hawking, who raised this possibility for space exploration since the original humans would die on board before they reached the outer limits of the cosmos.

High Life is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 23 May

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