High Life Image

High Life

By Andy Howell | April 6, 2018

There is a hell of a lot of masturbation in Claire Denis’ latest film, High Life, and that’s as good a metaphor as any for the film.  High Life is intellectual masturbation — devoid of human engagement, just sad in the gulf between the fantasy and reality.

High Life it is in a way transcendent.  It has broken through to a new kind of awful that was previously inaccessible to humanity.  Never before has a director taken the raw materials of extensive murder, rape, and animal cruelty, a Harry Potter and Twilight heartthrob (Robert Pattinson), an extraordinary musician (Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000), one of the world’s finest actresses (Juliette Binoche), added in black holes, and yet made something from it as engrossing a coma and as comprehensible as senility.

The movie begins with Monte (Pattinson) working on the exterior of a spaceship, over the cries from a baby monitor. It seems he and this infant are the only survivors of this mysterious mission.  In time we piece together that a crew of criminals was sent out to extract energy from a black hole, and in flashbacks, we get the story of how, through a series of rapes and murders, we’re left with only these two.  The ship has an unexplained feature — Pattinson has to interface with the computer using a chip in his finger every 24 hours in order to renew life support. In time we learn that the ship used to be run by Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a mad scientist so obsessed with sex and reproduction that she’s willing to resort to rape and non-consensual artificial insemination to create a baby that won’t die from radiation.   

Right from the start, the aesthetic is ugly and inconsistent.  The space suits look like cheap props, the corridors look like a normal building hallway, despite the rooms looking like a real space station, and the computer controlling the mission has the font and interface of something from the 60s, but with today’s hardware (though set in the far future).  It would almost seem like a deconstruction of 2001, as if to subvert the meticulous attention to detail and homicidal computer at the core of the grandfather of the genre, except that it never follows through.

“…we get the story of how, through a series of rapes and murders, we’re left with only these two.

Speaking of Kubrick, it is almost as if this film was made on a dare to see if Denis could make a mashup of 2001 and Dr. Strangelove with none of the awe of the former or humor of the latter. Juliette Binoche’s Dibs has all the obsession for “precious bodily fluids” as Jack D. Ripper — at one point she carries a character’s semen through the halls cupped in her hands.  She combines that with and all the deranged zeal of Strangelove himself (though played totally straight). Other characters ride into oblivion with all the determination of Slim Pickens astride the bomb. Is the black hole here the vaginal equivalent of Strangelove’s phallic bomb?  Isn’t that the stupidest sentence you’ve ever read? Yet these are the kind of things you wonder when you’re trying to find meaning in nonsense.

High Life has all the subtlety of a 4chan post. It is calculated to outrage, yet done so very incompetently.  Rape, murder, and animal cruelty are the big guns of audience manipulation. They are used in cinema all the time, often to great effect.  But if you’re going to pull one out, it had better pay off. Here they’re thrown in as if calculated outrage is the only point. Is the black hole supposed to be a metaphor for the human soul?  That was sophomoric in 1997 when Event Horizon tried it.  

High Life has serious thematic problems. I’ve heard some suggest it is supposed to be our reaction to confinement or exposure to the void.  That doesn’t even make any sense, because the astronauts were all selected from rapists and murderers in the first place. Why would humanity send such awful people to do the most challenging and expensive thing they’ve ever attempted?  Is the message that striving for greatness is folly?

Is the black hole here the vaginal equivalent of Strangelove’s phallic bomb?

Spoiler alert (for two paragraphs) for something that happens late in the movie:  in between black holes, in the vast void, our protagonists just happen upon another identical ship.  Except the only living occupants are dogs. They are in really bad shape, having eaten each other to stay alive. Until this point, the movie has taken great pains to establish that life support will only renew every 24 hours if you have a special chip in your finger, and you type instructions into a computer.

If the humans died less than 24 hours ago, all that does is establish an astonishing temporal coincidence on top of the extraordinary spatial coincidence. Thematically, it does not pay off, except in the subtext that people are animals — like the dogs, we’ll murder each other to stay alive.  But you don’t need subtext when there is text!  We already literally know they’re murderers because we’ve both been told and shown it!  This is High Life in a nutshell — here’s some animal cruelty.  Why? No reason! Are you offended?

The truth is that there is no message.  This is just throwing in the kitchen sink of outrageous things, half-themes, and cinematic styles and hoping that the viewer will make something up to draw it together.  

Here’s the nicest thing I’ll say about High Life: presenting your lead female character as a baby-crazed rapist is about the most anti-zeitgeist thing you can do. No male director could have gotten away with that in 2018.  Though that’s the last theme I’d be looking for, for the pure boldness of not fitting into any box, High Life gets one star.  I just wish there was enough here to award 9 more.

High Life (2018) Directed by Claire Denis. Written by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Geoff Cox. Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin, Mia Goth. High Life screened at the 2018 New York Film Festival.

Rating: 1/10

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  1. Fergus M Byrne says:

    I think Shelley is a nod to Mary Shelly who wrote Frankenstein.

  2. Luigi "Il Professore" Parenti says:

    …….one major issue still confuses me at the end???? The main character calls out: “Shelly!?!” and the female character who responds looks a lot like his daughter, Willow, from minutes earlier but only a bit older and now with red lipstick on????? Is it his daughter or perhaps his first girlfriend from High School before he killed his friend who killed his dog and the reason why he was sent to prison???? I can’t figure that one out for the life of me…..and where in space does one get that shade of red French lipstick???? I’m still baffled?????…..and what about the “plastic vagina” dialogue between the mad doctor and female patient???? Kubrik would never have left us with such questions or puzzles.

  3. Luigi "Il Professore" Parenti says:

    Bravo !! Bravissimo ! Brilliant! Evocative! A bit confusing too. In Sci-Fi film almost every theme has already been exploited…so….in that same vane they exploited this to death (beating a dead dog or horse….pun intended) using and relying on theatrical style props and some body fluids rather than super-realistic sets. Although I truly don’t fully understand the ending myself (I can only ponder it in a Kubrick 2001 kind of way) it does make a point or conclusion to the plot. It even opens up the possibility for an equally horrible sequel…let’s not go there! If you notice…..the number “7” and number “9” craft are small and relatively inexpensive boxes set out into space as experiments. They are low-budget and disposable craft…as well as the occupants who chose to die in them rather than die in prison – they all knew it was a one-way trip. They didn’t need trained astronauts…. and even the evil doctor admits to being a felon no less at one point. Although they are mere test subjects like animals in a cage (ie. the Dog ship references) the survivors of the experiment end-up enjoying being the first successful time travelers through a worm hole (note the swirling tunnel didn’t pop-out their eyeballs as the black hole did to the previous test-pilot?) and end up safe and sound in another place, time or dimension – let’s not even consider the Adam-Eve biblical concept here at the end since his cute little (hybrid: “she’s perfect”) daughter would have presented an incestual dilemma or outcome…..oh those French film-makers…almost as bad as the Italians!!! The film was about sending animals, humans and offspring in to worm and black holes just to see what happens. In real life we already know eye-balls do pop-out and make a big mess of the space suits when entering black holes.

  4. The fresh direction in this modern film.Why always be led like sheeple?Why not spark our own imagination from the “Glimpse” or “Display” they provide? We became to idle and lazy and this display was a new path many film makers should explore.This film may be a attempt to show that lifelong criminal’s should be used to better our human condition ,rather than be wasted or dependent upon our lifelong support.I was left with visual puzzle of honest isolation traits,all to come to my own conclusion.This is how life in deep space would play out.It was a glimpse into a cold and chilling reality.If your expecting a common ride off into the sunset ending or a lame attempt to lead by the hand,this is NOT for you.More artistic theme to this work than the average moviegoer would expect but does not mean it is bad,just different.Very cold,chilling,real humanity and what is needed to keep some version of sanity.This was complete display for us to see,to the contemplate our own opinion of what we just saw.Hello people,this is “Us”, and what we are capable of if thrown into the similar situation.Very Honest work here.Miss Binoche is still lovely and the binding veteran anchor to this cast.The Untrained eye will compare her time on “The Box” to Elizabeth Berkley and her debokkle in Stripper film, but this was far from that.To witness the pleasure fluids in hindsight was sexy combined with her lovely locks.She was a mad scientist ,fixated on assuring her goal was completed.Massaging her crop like a crazed farmer.I thought how this film was made for the homegrown film lover and not as much for the mainstream viewer.Unless your willing to think for yourself,you will spin your wheels in this one.I truly liked it.Left me with a puzzle of visual disturbing Element to savor.lol…Watched it twice.

  5. jim says:

    one of the worst movies Ive ever seen

  6. This movie is a piece of crap. This review is spot on. No real direction or plot. It goes nowhere. It is a waste of 2 hours and depressing as well. If that was the point in making the movie then I blame those that funded it. It sucked.

  7. Natalie Martin says:

    Does the baby die????????????? I must know…….

  8. Doug Chance says:

    Wow. Seems like someone was more interested in applying their energy to the level of snark they could generate, rather than actually considering the subject of the review.

    Free clue #1: Just because the human ship required someone to check in every 24 hours to sustain life support (and tbh, we don’t even know if that was really true or just an insinuated means of behavioral control) doesn’t mean that a canine version would have the same “feature”.

    Free clue #2: The appearance of dogs may have something to do with the protagonist’s crime.

  9. Ash says:

    Smells like frustration here 😀

  10. PF says:

    Maybe Mr. Howell missed what the movie is really about, and his taste is better suited to a superhero movie, with special effects, that give you nothing to think about

  11. hb says:

    Mr. Howell can’t find one performance or one tidbit that he found redeeming? Perhaps it says something about his objectivity.

  12. Di French says:

    Thanks. I found the trailer intriguing but with a warming light going off. You explained the warning light. Now I know — don’t bother to see this film; you won’t enjoy it. Shame, really. It has a good cast.