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For space-cinema fans, Spring 2019 has long had two big releases on the schedule unrelated to that big Apollo anniversary. The Brad Pitt-led, James Gray (Lost City of Z)-directed Ad Astra continues to target May, and the Robert Pattinson-starring, Claire Denis-made High Life arrives this week.
Before even so much as seeing a trailer for the former, I now know that the only thing these two films likely have in common will be an out-of-this-world setting.
At the most basic-level, High Life centers on the story of Monte (Pattinson), the last man on the nondescript spaceship No.7. Quickly, the film reveals he hasn't always been this alone—originally Monte was one of nine inmates released from their sentences in exchange for accepting an interstellar mission. “We were scum, trash, refuse that didn't fit into the system until someone had the bright idea of recycling us to serve science,” as Monte's narration frames it. Why and how these people ended up as hauntingly beautiful floating space debris makes up the bulk of High Life's minimalist plot, as does the question of what made Monte avoid and continue to put off such a fate. Violence, mental challenges, and some off-the-books drugs and research complicate everything.
But as those who recognize famed French auteur Claire Denis might expect, plot never really rises above a secondary priority at best. Those sci-fi film fans seeking a tense drama or some intricate allegory filled with clear messages and answers will be better off booting up A New Hope for the 100th time while waiting for Brad Pitt. Instead, Denis' first foray into space sci-fi and English-language film will probably delight anyone that dabbles in Film Twitter™ with its ambiguity and artiness. But unlike the 2001-ish experience it may sound like in certain ways, High Life will just as easily lose certain segments of its audience with its abundance of extremes and seeming disinterest in story.
In space, no one can hear you ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Wherever she can, Denis intentionally zags with High Life where prior space films zigged. Though she obviously thought a lot about the genre and its scientific basis—Denis namechecks 2001 and Solaris in the film's press materials, and she worked with the European Space Agency and astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau to familiarize herself with everything from black holes and the Big Bang to string theory and wormholes—the director intentionally eschews a lot of that detail.
For instance, while the world of High Life is undeniably constructed with care and has a certain blue-collar chic that's more Prospect than SpaceX, Denis sought to avoid the sleekness so often associated with sci-fi or NASA glory. This is not “Kens and Barbies floating in spaceships resembling children's toys,” Denis says in her press notes. Spaceship No.7 looks like a functional shoe-box when it floats through space, and its interior might as well be a prison.
High Life's action follows this same aesthetic, with little-to-no effects. This film's space cadets simply walk. Anything discarded from the ship just falls off a ledge into the nothingness of space. Views of the outside galaxy definitely can be striking, but they're minimalistic, and at times, it's (intentionally) hard to decipher whether we're looking at space or inside the human body. Beyond one very First Man-y (lo-fi, practical, stunning in its own right) exploratory pod sequence, the closest thing to a “set piece” is a seductively shot, extended romp inside the ship's solo sex dungeon (which, yes, had become something to shout out on Twitter even before High Life left the festival circuit). Action often unfolds in unflinching, graphic, disturbing, watch-through-your-fingers detail, all stemming from one human exhibiting kindness or aggression towards another.
“[With] weightlessness—there is no need for it because the spaceship is accelerating close to the speed of light,” Denis says. “Terrestrial gravity—gravity in every sense of the word—reestablishes itself, because gravity is the effect of acceleration. If I had to film actors hanging from cables against a green screen, I'd never have made this movie.”
While those against-the-grain choices work wonderfully, things get muddier with the story itself. Small stories in galaxies far, far away can work amazingly, as can subverting more traditional filmmaking choices (High Life is just the latest in Denis' non-linear legacy). But Denis challenges the audience sometimes to the point of frustration by doling out that kind of information in only the smallest doses.
Evil vixen Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) manages everything on the ship and has a diabolical study to carry out with extreme personal investment. That's separate from what we learn is the stated mission society and governments offered spaceship No.7's crew in exchange for pseudo-release. But neither of those macro-plots gets sustained forward momentum or extended, obvious contemplation. Instead, the most engaging story to High Life appears to be Monte's psychological journey from accepting this mission, through coming to grips with its reality, to finally settling on what actions he will or won't take to go forward.
“I'm interested in the variety of human life—how people live,” Denis says in the press notes, seemingly confirming this notion. “I'm most interested in individuals and how they respond to challenges or to difficulties, or just to each other. The cinema should be human and be part of people's lives; it should focus on ordinary existences in extraordinary situations and places. That's what really motivates me.”
As someone not as versed in Denis' work as film critics who can casually namecheck 2001's Trouble Every Day, maybe having the context of her entire filmography would unlock a lot of High Life's enigmas. High Life might mostly speak to the challenge of being human in the face of insurmountable forces—black holes in the film, things like climate change in real life. Or perhaps Denis has a Us-ian sentiment in mind about never being truly able to outrun your past. After all, Monte, definitely now a different individual from the juvenile criminal that got locked up, still remains sentenced to an existence separate from humanity. At the very least, this film clearly has something to say about sexuality, sex, reproduction, and men's and women's bodies.
With each thread you find yourself trying to unravel, Denis stays just on the opaque end of decipherable. For some, that's an attraction; for others, an aversion. For sci-fi diehards that read about a big movie star in a new space movie, it's definitely something other than what you'd expect.
High Life opens this weekend in New York and Los Angeles before going nationwide on April 19.
<em>Listing image by High Life / Claire Denis / Fons PR</em>