Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth
Director: Claire Denis
Running Time: 113 mins
High Life is a French film about a group of people on board a spacecraft, sent out into the abyss towards a black hole to perform scientific experiments. However, life on board grows difficult over the years.
As close to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris as modern cinema is likely to get, High Life is an undeniably striking, bold and deeply unsettling sci-fi drama throughout. Unfortunately, while it impresses with its cinematic audacity, the film really struggles to find its feet early on, coming off as a gratuitously provocative arthouse film, rather than something genuinely deep. That said, with strong directing and performances, and a far better final act, High Life proves a memorable, if not rather exhausting watch.
Now, slow cinema is always one of the most interesting genres out there, because it requires the very best in directing, acting, screenwriting and everything else to keep you engrossed at every moment. The original Solaris is a great example of how slow cinema can work really well, and can also be really boring. High Life, taking its cues from the Soviet classic, is a bold attempt at pure slow cinema, but it too struggles to keep the intensity and intrigue there at every moment.
Starting off with the film’s opening two acts, things really don’t come together in the way the movie seems to want them to. While its non-linear structure is commendable in creating uncertainty and mystery surrounding the status of the people stuck out here in deep space, the film spends a good hour or so jumping back and forth between characters, time periods, themes and more in a rather disorientating manner.
Now, the film is atmospherically speaking a deeply unsettling and mysterious watch, and director Claire Denis does a brilliant job to tie together striking cinematography and top-quality costume and production design together to give this film that piercingly disturbing and strange atmosphere right from the start.
However, in slow cinema, an atmospherically striking movie isn’t enough, and while High Life does more than enough to intrigue in its first ten minutes, that eeriness feels like it’s all style over substance as the first two acts unfold, a problem worsened by the film’s gratuitous and unnecessarily graphic use of sex and violence through the first half.
As a result, while I was taken aback by the visuals, atmosphere and striking likeness to Solaris, I really found myself struggling to engage with the film’s major themes through the opening two acts, with the story taking too many liberties with its more provocative and arthouse-style ideas early on, and giving little focus to developing those main dramatic themes in a more engrossing manner.
Fortunately, things change in the final act, which not only takes away the earlier period’s gratuitously provocative elements, but also brings far more depth and intrigue to those main themes. All of a sudden, with a significant change of circumstance going into the third act, the concepts of humanity as a species, the reproductive cycle, the ethics of science and the far future all start to hit home, which makes an already atmospherically striking film a thematically powerful one as well.
If things had continued the way they had in the first two acts, I would have ultimately called High Life a dull and pretentious film, but it manages to bring together its best ideas in time for an electric final act, which finally delivers on what is not only a brilliant dramatic premise, but a unique and commendably bold cinematic style that isn’t used to its full potential early on.
Robert Pattinson impresses throughout with a more measured performance than a lot of the more provocative events surrounding his character, and it’s that island of calm that keeps a degree of dramatic intrigue in the story through the first two acts. Juliette Binoche also impresses on the other side of the spectrum, really bringing home the more disturbing nature of the story at hand with a deliberately witch-like turn as the ship’s medical controller.
The supporting cast aren’t quite on the same level as the lead duo, partly because the secondary characters don’t really get the attention they deserve, but also because they’re used more often in the film’s more provocative periods, whereas the most powerful and memorable points are almost entirely focused on Pattinson’s character.
On the whole, there’s certainly a lot to say about High Life, and I am delighted to say that it’s a bold, audacious modern take on slow cinema. With stunning visuals from beginning to end, as well as excellent directing, the film holds a piercingly unsettling atmosphere throughout, furthered only by the disturbing nature of many of its themes. High Life does struggle to find its feet for the first two-thirds, which can prove frustrating, but once it all comes together in the final act, it proves to be a genuinely powerful and memorable watch, which is why I’m giving it a 7.4.