Robert Pattinson in space. It’s a concept, particularly for a man who amassed enough money early in his career that he can make whatever he wants for the rest of his life. He’s been in a limousine, he’s been a fascist, and now he’s practically alone on his way to a black hole. An existentialist French project, what we’ve always dreamed of for the man. High Life is less hard science fiction than it is difficult science fiction, but it works.
Monte (Pattinson, Good Time) is on a space craft heading for a black hole, with no one but a baby (Scarlette Lindsey) for company. As Monte goes about his duties, including asking for daily permission from the onboard computer system to stay alive, he reflects upon what brought him to space and how he came to be alone.
For much of its run, Pattinson carries his nameless ship and High Life by himself. Lindsey is a good baby, but she can only contribute so much to the piece. As long as Pattinson has something to talk to and something to live for, he can carry on. Monte is taciturn both by nature and design, and Pattinson is well suited to the role. Originally intended for a somewhat older man, it never matters that the passage of time is indicated only by the amount of grey patches in Pattinson’s close cropped hair; the man has the aura of having been in space forever. He does not sparkle in this movie, but he certainly broods.
The script, co-written by director Claire Denis (Let The Sunshine In) and Jean Pol-Fargeau (My Name Is Hmmm…) imparts as little information as it thinks it can get away with; as it travels deeper into flashback, more questions are raised than are answered. Does anything about Monte’s mission serve a purpose? We have reasons and excuses, but we can never truly know. High Life is as opaque as the uncomfortable space bound shoebox it is set in. Its angularity is appealing simply because it’s a design that does not often make it into a genre film, but the more you look at it the less practical it seems. The storytelling becomes environmental, and the nature of Monte’s mission becomes briefly clearer before once again shrouding itself in fog.
Denis directs with a matter of fact brutality that allows warmth in only two arenas: the garden, and Monte’s time with baby Willow. She presents the ship not as uncaring, but as actively cruel and sinister. It is not “the film’s third character”, but it represents a particular human mindset that Denis has captured all too well. High Life is an incredibly deliberate film that disquiets but never loses faith in Monte’s fortitude. There is no nihilism here, but only a light disappointment in what man is capable of. Man as a whole is not the one man that we care about, and Denis and Pattinson ensure that the audience is never in danger of succumbing to space despair.
High Life is a rough film at times, and after a point cabin fever sets in and the characters take leave of their senses. But this is a film about flaws — flaws in humanity, flaws in the entropy of systems — and it embraces them. High Life gets incredibly weird, but if you put your trust in Pattinson, he will take you to the end. The future may be a blandly utilitarian prison state, but somewhere beneath all of that window dressing there’s a simulacrum of hope. Hold on to that and High Life will not disappoint.
High Life is screening in Australia as part of the Sydney Film Festival, between June 5 and June 16, 2019.
Directed by: Claire Denis.
Starring: Robert Pattinson and Scarlette Lindsey.