Review: 'High Life'

Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche match intersteller wits
in this bloody space thriller
Robert Pattinson cares for a newborn baby on a ghost ship in 'High Life.'

Hurtling toward a black hole at nigh-light speed, a spacecraft known only as "7" is in the middle of an eight-year mission. The outside of the craft is blandly boxlike. Inside, it's crappy, exactly like the littered hall of a public housing apartment. Claire Denis' High Life, and yes, the title is ironic, begins with two survivors aboard.

Monte (Robert Pattinson) is repairing a magnetic shield outside the craft, while baby-monitoring the wails of a yearling girl fussing in her makeshift playpen. When not tending to the babe, Monte is recycling his urine, or hauling the scraps of his meals in a dingy plastic bucket to the indoor compost heap.

The rest of the crew is still aboard, corpses in space suits. The mission was made up of murderous criminals shot into space as a way of serving their sentences. In flashbacks, the shipmates' crimes are teased out. One woman seems to be the focal point of the male passengers' interest: the red-headed Boyse (Mia Goth)—malignantly elfine.

High Life is authentic in one factor, describing space being a place where terrible things happen, where radiation and strokes take their toll.

The ailing travelers give the supervising mad doctor aboard a lot of work. Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) is the biggest criminal on the ship, to hear her tell it; she's guilty of the kind of crime they write Greek myths about. She's also desperately trying to get a new generation born upon the unlucky "7." The men are required to produce semen for analysis, collected in "the fuck box," an orgasmatron of pathic VR. Dibs gets first dibs in there; we watch her coupling with some imaginary hairy shapeless protoplasm. Binoche (or her body double) treats us to the sex scene we deserve after what High Life puts us through.

It's explicit but not because of nudity. The doctor is seen in pieces, from the back, as she swings her waist-long hair in ecstasy, now a face craning back, now a portion of her abdomen, where she has a scar that looks like someone tried to give her a hysterectomy with a can opener. Later, when she's really up to no good, Dibs oils her tresses like some Biblical temptress. Binoche's Lilith qualities help us through the endless closeups of Robert Pattinson. Like Sam Rockwell in Moon, he has to be his own audience.

High Life has poetry, but it's awkward. After a long and distinguished career (White Matter, Chocolat, 35 Shots of Rum) this is Denis' first movie in English. Is there any reason, beyond increased ticket sales, that a director would cut off her tongue at age 70? It's not like there needed to be much dialogue, since it's mostly a movie about Pattinson looking bitter and Binoche looking wanton. As for everyone else aboardÉ as a friend says, "Violence is a universal language."

Dull colors and people gone rapey from space madness explain why a person might want to "space" themselves, to use The Expanse's term for the one way trip out the airlock. No one made an effort to decorate this flying slum, except with gouged graffitti and sprays of bodily fluid. But there is one break from the unnaturalness: a space garden. It's like a sprawling version of a nature preserve in Silent Running (1972) a chaotic mass of plants slowly going unearthly in shape and color. The crew walks barefoot here, baptising themselves in the dirt of it, rubbing the soil on their faces.

After the encounter with another ship (a real SPCA-commercial, this ship: beware, dog-lovers) Denis sets up a hopeful ending you can't believe. The tantalizing dream of space exploration is absent in High Life's reckoning: it'd be better if we just stayed on Earth and tended our gardens. What's here is either mankind, spreading its infection into the cosmos, or space greeting this infection with the hostility it deserves. To paraphrase the comedian Brother Theodore, we look into the abyss, and the abyss looks into us, and neither one of us likes what it sees.

High Life
R; 113 Mins.
AMC Saratoga

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