‘High Life:’ a touching and terrifying trip to space


Courtesy of IMDB

Robert Pattinson as Monte, a volunteer for the experimental space mission.

Space has and always will be an enthralling setting to explore on film. Whether it be the grand operatic fantasies like the “Star Wars” and “Alien” franchises, of the more avant-garde fantastical artistic expressions like “2001: A Space Odyssey”  or “Interstellar,” it always proves to be a draw for audiences and the boldest way for filmmakers to approach really big ideas. So following in the footsteps of such acclaimed filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick, Alfonso Cuaron and Christopher Nolan, we have seasoned French auteur Claire Denis stepping up to the plate and batting a major home run in the space film genre with “High Life.”

“High Life” follows a crew of death row inmates who have been cast out into deep space as a part of an alternate energy expedition. At the head of the expedition is Dr. Dibs, played by a very eerie Juliette Binoche, who treats all of the other prisoners as her own personal guinea pigs for her experiment regarding procreation in deep space. At the heart of this tumultuous situation is Monte, played by a very stern but sympathetic Robert Pattinson, a criminal who volunteered to be a part of the experiment who now finds himself struggling to raise his daughter and maintain his sanity in such a hostile, oppressive space.

Denis’ deeply psychological and artistic approach to this material has drawn many comparisons to that of Kubrick and “2001,” but this is something entirely of her own wildly disturbing creation. Watching this film, it doesn’t take long to understand why it drew such visceral reactions. Denis is totally unrestrained and unflinching when it comes to exploring the very violent and psycho-sexual nature of this story. She utilizes sound, lighting and the oppressive tight spaces of the ship to their fullest abilities. It all makes for a unique and frankly terrifying theatrical experience.

While the form and style of this film is immaculate, it’s the core of it that makes it shine so tremendously. Denis juxtaposes the intense and brutal nature of the prisoners with the affecting and tender relationship that Monte has with his daughter to paint a beautiful yet simultaneously haunting portrait of the hell that a parent is willing to go through to make sure their children don’t have to and so that they can see the best and brightest future possible. It’s a theme that is not new to Denis’ filmography; one of her more under-the-radar works, “35 Shots of Rum,” most notably tackled this unique father-daughter bond, and it has proven very personal for her. Denis has gone on to talk about her important relationship with her father, who raised her in French-colonized West Africa.

As far as genre goes, Denis has never been one to restrict herself to a very specific one. She is actively one of cinema’s greatest experimenters and her openness and daring sensibilities make “High Life” one of the most thrilling sensory experiences I’ve witnessed on a big screen in a while. This is not sci-fi, this is sci-fi subversion at its absolute finest. Next week, Denis will turn 73 years old, but she is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down or taking things easy on her audience. If “High Life” is any indication, she is just going to keep getting bolder with her work and I for one am here for it all the way.