In 2018, French director Claire Denis stepped out of her comfort zone and into science fiction, using the genre to tell a gripping story that offers challenging questions on the human condition. It’s brilliantly acted, patiently filmed, and filled with bright colors that let you feel the texture of every surface. It also asks the reader to piece together a puzzle whose solution will stick with you long after the movie is over.
That's why you need to watch High Life right now. Lucky for you, it's streaming for free on Amazon Prime.
It’s easy for auteurs to get lost in space, but Denis found a perfect star in Robert Pattinson, who plays a prisoner shunted far away from Earth, past the solar system, as part of his punishment. The movie is a silent one, content with sounds of babies crying and train tracks rumbling as opposed to dialogue. It’s non-linear, with images of infants turning into teenagers jumping back and forth with each other.
For all it’s art-house nature, High Life offers up a clear and horrifying villain in the form of Juliette Binoche. Binoche plays Dr. Dibs (a role originally intended for Patricia Arquette), who is on board the prison vessel to work on her experiments with artificial insemination. Everyone on board uses a device called ‘The Box” to constantly keep their sexual desires in check, although Pattinson eventually decides in favor of chastity to “make himself stronger.”
André 3000 of the band OutKast, here credited as André Benjamin, also shines as Pattinson’s only friend aboard the prison ship. The two talk about masturbation, gardening, and their lives back home. Their scenes are too short, and it feels like Benjamin's abilities are underused here, but there's real chemistry between them.
The question that emerges for the crew is, initially, if they can capture a black hole’s rotating energy into something that could be sent to Earth. Later, it becomes whether they can survive the increasingly horrifying treatments of Dr. Dibs, upon whom they all rely. For audiences, the question is: how did Pattinson and his daughter become stranded alone on this ship?
The textures of the film are mostly grimy. The few shots of Earth focus on trains rumbling, while the spaceship is littered with trash. Its occupants don’t particularly care, obsessed with goals that end up falling catastrophically short. Dr. Dibs sexually and medically controls the crew, crewmembers sexually assault each other, and the entire thing is incredibly unpleasant.
These moments of violent action are difficult to watch, be forewarned. Coming in the midst of such a quiet, desolate movie, they feel like a sudden hurricane. When they’re over, the audience is left with the unethical experiments of Dibs. The juxtaposition of a quick violent crime and a slow one is breathtaking.
Don’t let the name trick you into putting this on your 4/20 social calendar: High Life is a grim movie that wants to push its viewers into looking at the uglier sides of humanity. Its vision of space as mostly a prison or deathtrap is a grim one. Yet it pushes through, looking at how humanity continues to persist even in the worst moments. It’s hard to call the ending optimistic, but it shows that the best things can only happen when we stick together.
High Life is streaming now on Amazon Prime.