High Life

Jacob Richardson | 17/06/2019

A bizarre space treatise on the cruelty of solitude and pointlessness, told in a way only Claire Denis could.


Monte (Robert Pattinson) lives in isolation in the deep of space with his daughter. They struggle to survive in a spartan box of a spaceship, designed as a last option for deathrow inmates; execution, or giving your life to a one-way scientific expedition in the deep of space with no hope of return. As his daughter grows, Monte recalls the circumstances that left him alone with her in space; the demise of a more significant crew, dwindling down to one man, alone with his daughter.


Denis brings her own roving eye to this subject matter (certainly outside of her normal wheelhouse), and in doing so takes what could have been a fairly rote sci-fi and turns it into a meta-artistic thinkpiece on the cruelty of humanity. Whether the camera lingers on the very human machinery keeping the water source running, on a veritable fuck-box in the basement, or on Robert Pattinson playing with a screaming child, Denis manages to bring the mundane and human into a story that is very much fantastical sci-fi at its heart.


She’s aided by the set design. The spaceship they are travelling on, given the prisoners that inhabit it and freed from the constraints of friction coefficients and gravity, takes on an almost brutalistic feel with its corners and flat edges. Indeed, when the crew take out a glittery, silver smaller spaceship for a single pilot to approach a black hole, it almost looks costume-y by comparison; so much so has Denis used set design to create a reality to the space.


Then there is the soundscape. Denis uses sound in High Life to tremendous effect. Her soundscape is one of complete serenity until that serenity is broken by any act of violence or dissent, and serves to enhance even the most minor act of aggression into a horrific and visceral piece of cinema. The solitude and despondency of space is truly felt through the use of sound.


That speaks broadly to the plot, which is undoubtedly intriguing. Denis takes a deep look at the cruelty of human nature, and it isn’t always palatable. One imagines this story could very well be told in another location, on Earth, but by setting it in space Denis makes us feel everything a little more keenly.

Most of this is achieved through a powerhouse performance from Robert Pattinson. Pattinson is the brooding protagonist, who’s over murky past makes our support for him amongst this nest of vipers entirely conflicting. Pattinson never makes it feel like Monte is too good for his predicament, and in doing so he manages to bring to the surface of High Life a feeling of hope.


High Life isn’t your average sci-fi, but that’s not a bad thing. If you leave your preconceptions at the door, you might find that High Life stays with you long after you leave the theatre.