For a film to truly earn a five-star rating, it needs to transcend the simple act of filmmaking and stand the test of time. I typically reserve the rating for films that over time have become a constant source of comfort, or for challenging, daring films that have deeply affected me years after I have first seen them. Very rarely do I give a film five stars from the very first viewing. But 'High Life' is not just any film.
The first English language film by French auteur Claire Denis ('Let the Sunshine in'), 'High Life' follows criminal Monte (Robert Pattinson, 'Twilight Saga', 'The Lost City Of Z') as he tries to raise his infant daughter, the last survivors on a spaceship headed towards a black hole. The spaceship takes on the cold appearance of a shipping container, its interior feeling very (intentionally) prison-like. Why is Monte alone? How did he end up on the spaceship? Who is the mother of his child? All of these questions are answered through a jumbled chronology, similar to how time bends in a black hole, and a twisted backstory full of violence, blood, semen, and deranged science reveals itself. The fact that 'High Life' is set in space seems to free the film of typical structure; the editing is incredibly smooth, like floating through space. The pacing is perfect; for all its graphic material and the complex themes 'High Life' hints at and unpacks, it travels along like a hum. Just the threat of the impending doom is enough to keep the audience hooked.
The characters in 'High Life' are similarly freed of the societal expectations and inhibitions felt on earth. Above the earth and apparently above the law, scientist Dibs (Juliette Binoche, 'Clouds of Sils Maria') plays god with the bodies of unwilling, semi-drugged participants. Other characters interpret this freedom to give into their worst urges. The nature of humanity is almost feared in the film, a dangerous force that drives the characters to madness and violence quicker and more realistically than any other space opera in recent years. The fact that every actor in this film is at the top of their game is also beneficial in selling the characters' descents into insanity. Robert Pattinson proves yet again that his agent is one of the best in the business. His mind-blowing, criminally underrated role in 2017's 'Good Time' (another rare five-star film from the very first watch) made audiences sit up and start taking him seriously, and 'High Life' is a sure step in the same direction. Doing his best stoic Ryan Gosling impersonation, Pattinson's Monte, a violent criminal, acts as the films moral compass. That should indicate how off the chain this film gets.
The films cinematography employs colour in a manner different to what one would expect from a science fiction film. Gone are the whitewashed spaceship interiors; the film primarily bathes in earthy tones, reds and browns that feel out of place on a spaceship, and along with the lush greens of the ship's greenhouse, they breathe life into the ship, making it feel almost as human as the characters themselves. During sleep hours, when the characters' ugliest inclinations come out, the film absolves the characters of responsibility by bathing the scenes in an unnatural blue hue. They're in space, they will probably never get home, their humanity is gone.
'High Life' pushes the limits of what audiences should expect from science fiction.
Denis pushes the limits of what audiences should expect from science fiction "body horror", and despite the (very well-deserved) praise I am lauding this film with, some of its more graphic content does not sit well with me at all. Sexual violence of any kind, even when it serves a narrative purpose like it does in 'High Life', is something I find incredibly difficult to stomach, especially when it is filmed in such a way that is unflinching in its cruelty. To say 'High Life' is not for the faint of heart is an understatement - not only are there multiples rapes, but characters are literally torn apart as they plummet into a black hole. Denis films the violence in a way that almost pities the characters. They are nothings in the vast expanse of the universe, piles of organic material that are no match for a black hole. In space, no one can hear the lifeless bodies of your shipmates float by peacefully. To be human in 'High Life' is to face inevitable annihilation.
Space madness is a complex and intriguing film topic done to death in its current permutation, and that's why 'High Life' is so special; despite the setting of the film, it is an inherently human experience, having more in common with 'The Stanford Prison Experiment' than 'Gravity'. It will be unpalatable for some, an instant classic for others - but the brutality and power of this film is undeniable.