Spoilers might put you to sleep.
I’m only a snob of films of my own taste. I am not a student of film. I watch it for entertainment. When I watch something I like, I’m going to marvel at the artistry of the filmmakers putting it together. My taste is not exquisite, not by a mile. I will enjoy some good films that happen to be great and some bad films that I find good. That being said I don’t like to watch bad films. There’s poorly-made, starlet vehicles for mass consumption and then in the other side of the spectrum, pretentious holier-than-thou masterpieces that require subjective intellect to gather any meaning. Finding a diamond in the rough is amazing. Finding nothing but roughness in a diamond is puzzling.
I’m conflicted to where director Claire Denis’ film High Life (2018) falls, but it’s definitely not within my preferred range. I have found movies intolerable enough to want to leave the theatre when they’re not kind to their audience, but this one is not in that category. The premise slowly gets discovered over time, it’s easy enough to follow but there’s not much in the reveal. A group of prison inmates are drafted into a scientific program of sorts with the idea being to conceive a child in space. Also, they’re either headed to or orbiting a black hole. That can’t be accidental. I have yet to see a film with a black hole that is not a metaphor.
The movie eschews any visually striking effects, so although this story has a science-fiction background, it does not particularly care about charming you with CGI or techno babble. To its credit, the movie doesn’t follow a linear pattern, starting with sole remaining inmate Monte (Robert Pattinson) and revealing the story of how the rest of cast spent their days. Basically, inmates have to constantly report to Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), tend to the garden for food and report to a computer to keep life support going. They also get to use the “sex room” if they feel lonely.
The pacing is slow. You could attribute that to giving the audience time to form a bond with Monte, but he’s hardly a charismatic fellow. The fact that he follows a moral code and doesn’t use the sex room is something that we learn from other people. I was hoping for the “show, don’t tell” technique, but at certain periods we get either exposition from other characters or voiceover narration. In direct contrast to “good guy” Monte, we have one of the inmates, Ettore (Ewan Mitchell) constantly leering at the women. One night he tries to rape Boyse (Mia Goth) which results in a very violent scene which ends in Mink (Claire Tran) stabbing him. There are literally no guards and doors seem to be wide open without explanation.
The only control that exist is in the drugs that Dr. Dibs gives everyone, and as the narration explains, she can increase the dose when she wants everyone knocked out. The fact that there are no guards, only one captain and one pilot and the doors don’t seem to be locked in a ship with prison inmates on death row does not seem believable to me. Worst of it all, once everyone is knocked out after the violence erupted, Dr. Dibs decides to literally take advantage of Monte on his sleep, collect his sperm in the most perverse way possible and later inject Boyse with it.
Now I don’t mind the minimalistic approach to special effects, and would rather have it to the usual tech/cgi fest we get on other feature films, but the film leaves questions unanswered that I believe are not the ones it intends to raise. As much as I want to question the idea behind the story, the plot itself leaves out much of the basic storytelling. Mainly, that it seems Dr. Dibs is after having a child conceived under certain conditions. Why? What was she seeking to find or prove? Willow is conceived and taken care of by Monte as he’s the only grown up. Willow’s crying in the first part of the film is almost grating, she is not depicted as some sort of miracle birth.
In other words, what is the problem or the theory that Willow is supposed to solve? For that matter, was there a problem to begin with? Is it the radiation that kills Captain Chandra (Lars Eidinger)? The idea of having to fly in a smaller ship towards the black hole seems to have some sort of a purpose, but it doesn’t wrap up or solve anything. The run-in with the abandoned spaceship with the dogs in it doesn’t offer additional clues. You could go for the conclusion about the futility of life, exploration or even scientific research without humanity but it feels like picking at low hanging fruit that has been better explained in lesser movies.
I honestly wish I could recommend to its intended audience, but I can’t fathom one. It doesn’t succeed in telling a compelling story, excel at cinematography or provide any memorable performance from its cast. It is tolerable for the most part, brutal in the scene with the first sexual assault and the stabbing. It doesn’t elicit terror, comfort or a single measure of excitement or wonder. Granted, it could just be going above my head. But since I only review within my own limited and unrefined spectrum of appreciation, I cannot give it a pass. The director might have just aimed too far away from her intended target. Meaninglessness is too bland of a destination for any film or spaceship.
That will do for now.