Opening at Cinema Center this weekend, the new Claire Denis film High Life stars Robert Pattinson as Monte, an astronaut who lives in an otherwise abandoned spaceship with his newborn
Through flashbacks, we learn that Monte is actually one of several violent criminals serving life sentences on the ship undergoing a dangerous mission to extract energy from a distant black hole. As the story continues, we learn more about a creepy doctor named Dibs (Juliette Binoche) and a heinous experiment that she is secretly performing on the prisoners behind their backs.
In nearly every way, this film is designed to challenge, provoke, and even disgust its audience. The aggressively non-linear storytelling that Denis uses to tell this troubling and distressing tale makes it difficult to even form a coherent storyline in one’s head. Piecing the story together during the film is difficult enough but even mentally re-arranging the scenes together after the fact can also prove to be strenuous.
Even those who are comfortable with atypical chronology could still be turned off by its perverse and often shocking subject material; I would implore potential viewers to take the MPAA rating very seriously.
Having said all of that, High Life is an exceptionally well-crafted and almost overwhelmingly haunting blend of science-fiction and horror that lingers in the memory far after the end credits roll. Its deliberate pace and ruminative camera recalls the work of Tarkovsky, particularly Solaris, but some of the nightmarish imagery and visceral scares also reminded me of the ’90s chiller Event Horizon. Even with those two relatively disparate films as touchstones, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how to characterize this beguiling film, but that may well be one of its greatest strengths.
If there’s a central theme to be mined from this enigmatic, puzzle box of a movie, it’s that hope and love can still be found amidst the bleakest and most desperate of circumstances. Onboard a dingy spaceship with flickering lights and sputtering AC units, the crew on board must fill out a status report to a computer just to continue the 24-hour cycle of functional support systems as they hurtle into the unknown. Even at the brink of oblivion, Denis treats us to quiet scenes of Monte doing his best to lovingly raise his daughter with as much grace and warmth as he can muster.
Driving these fatherly scenes home is Robert Pattinson, probably still best known for his lead role as a hunky vampire in the five incredibly lucrative Twilight films that concluded with Breaking Dawn – Part 2 in 2012. Since then, he has pushed himself with demanding roles in films like The Rover and Good Time which showcase a level of talent that would have been difficult to forecast from those YA adaptations.
He may further alienate his fans if he continues to challenge himself with these kinds of roles, but if it means we get films like High Life as a result, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
Also coming to theaters this weekend
Pokémon Detective Pikachu, starring Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith, adapts the video game phenomenon to a live-action/animated story about a talking creature who helps a young man search for his missing father.
The Hustle, starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson, is a gender-swapped remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels about two scam artists who plan to take revenge on the men who wronged them.
Poms, starring Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver, follows a group of women from a retirement community looking to take one last shot at their dreams by forming a cheerleading squad.
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