Science-Fiction is a tricky genre…indie sci-fi in particular. Good scripts and concepts often don’t have the financial backing to see those ideas actualized. And when big studios that decide to get in on the action, they have the budget to dress it all up but often lack the script and/or the vision to deliver anything meaningful. High Life is definitely one of those low-budget independent films but it’s much more of a hallucinatory experience than a substantial sci-fi thriller.
Claire Denis is mostly unknown to American audiences but the French director has remained highly regarded on the foreign circuit for 30-plus years. Her unconventional style and robust vision are on full display with this film, rattling all the conventions we’ve come to expect from the Science-Fiction genre. That may be because it’s hardly a sci-fi film at all. Yes, it takes place near a black hole in deep space but that’s just the setting. This is undeniably a prison movie, tethered only loosely to any semblance of scientific exploration. Sure, there are a few bread crumbs about harnessing power from the singularity and a bizarre fixation on reproduction but I wouldn’t say those are the core elements of the story. If anything, this script by Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox, and Denis has its roots in social science. Reminiscent of the Stanford Prison Experiment on authority, however, in this instance the characters’ participation isn’t voluntary. The dialogue is more procedural than personal, providing insight into the characters and their situation aboard the vessel but the “science” behind it all is noticeably absent. In its place is an alarming amount of sexual violence and none of the promotional trailers prepare you for just how graphic the nature of this film is. Masking this as a sci-fi thriller was an interesting approach to marketing and probably a wise choice considering.
Beyond the indelible impressions left by those moments, Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche delivered very strong performances as Monte, one of the prisoners who is ultimately tasked with child rearing, and Dr. Dibs, the occult-ish fertility scientist with a flair for the dramatic, respectively. It’s nice to see Pattinson continue to take on these kinds of diverse and challenging roles as he looks to distance himself from the Twilight franchise. His role was the emotional core of the film and, with steady performances such as this, it’s only a matter of time before you begin to see his name in contention for some of Hollywood’s most prestigious hardware. Binoche, on the other hand, showed exactly why she is an Oscar-winner with her psychotic and disturbing portrayal. She set the tone early with a haunting scene of self-pleasure and the specter of that moment cast a dark shadow over the character and the remainder of the film. I doubt it’s the type of role that will garner attention during awards season but it’ll certainly stay with you after leaving the theater.
Piotr Bartuszek and Des Hamilton cast an odd group of supporting actors. The two most notable in are Mia Goth (A Cure for Wellness, Suspiria) and André Benjamin of Outkast. Goth had much more background and was more central to the plot as Boyse, a former runaway turned guinea space guinea pig who is adamantly opposed to pregnancy experimentation. She’s more volatile than I had seen from her in other roles and factors into several of the most intense moments on screen. I wish there would have been more for André 3000. His character was one of, if not, the most interesting and almost certainly the most morally sound but his role was just too small to wield any significant influence. Character design is obviously important but with highly stylized movies it’s only half the battle.
One of the most important elements when it comes to sci-fi flicks, at least for me, is the aesthetic design. It was easy to see just how low budget this film was but creating a new look from scratch gave the production designers, set decorators, and costume designers incredible freedom. However, that freedom led to some questionable choices. Across the board, everything was styled as if it were set in the late 1960s…or at least what the future could look like if it was conceptualized during that era.
There are plenty of beige and neutral tones, where contemporary sci-fi films go for a cleaner and sleeker look, and the space ship itself was noticeably industrial. It looked like a trash compactor we had in my childhood home, rectangular and utilitarian, definitely not aerodynamic or suited for space travel in any way. Even the interiors looked more like the confines of an insane asylum than an interstellar vehicle. That said, Cinematographers Yorick Le Saux and Tomasz Naumiuk captured some incredibly picturesque shots just considering the factory feel. Judy Shrewsbury’s costumes were minimalist and even the space suits looked like hand-me-downs from Russian cosmonauts. All this was certainly intentional on behalf of the production design team, depicting a kind of galactic trash can for the undesirables of the human species. What it lacked in style, it made up for in cohesive design elements. Even Stuart A. Staples original music is very uniformly composed of heavy, guttural synthesizer chords…eerily melodic and trance-like. Much of the movie was already unnerving enough but the music punctuated feelings of dread.
This certainly wasn’t what I expected going in and maybe that explains why it hasn’t even cracked a half-million dollars at the box office as of now. There’s just no way you can prepare yourself for what this movie is and there’s no way to unsee it once you do. Given the considerable amount of stress the characters go through in this story, it’s a bit light on the resolution. As much as the ending doesn’t give the audience what you’d want or expect, this is a film that still just lingered in my mind. I guess there’s something to be said for staying power, or maybe it’s just mental scarring. This is certainly front runner for Weirdest Movie of 2019.
Recommendation: If you’re looking for a legitimate sci-fi thriller, this likely isn’t it. But, if you’re going to see this for anything, see it for the unconventional style and for Pattinson’s and Binoche’s performances.