High Life is a movie that asks many big questions of its audience, but unfortunately the biggest of all is “if we already have both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris, do we really need High Life?” Claire Denis’ film clearly owes a great debt to those films, wearing its influences openly with obvious homages to Interstellar, Stalker, Under the Skin, Cargo and Silent Running, but it never quite succeeds in the way those films all managed to. The film it most resembles is actually John Carpenter’s Dark Star, as the crew of a deep space mission slowly succumb to cabin fever in their isolation.
The film follows Robert Pattinson as Monte, who along with his baby daughter are the sole survivors of a deep space experiment conducted on a crew of convicts, of which Monte was one. Their day to day makes up the first and last thirds of the film with the middle being a flashback to how the mission disintegrated, with sexual tension and resentment tearing the crew apart until only the chaste Monte remains.
To the film’s credit it has a lot of technical backing to it, in the cinematography, production design and soundscape, and it succeeds in producing some memorable and at times horrifying imagery. But the film suffers from a general lack of momentum and overall slow pace. That may be easier or harder for other audiences to stomach depending on their constitution or what kind of movie they are expecting. Personally I found it tolerable but not ideal, and just rewarding enough to avoid frustration. The themes are broad and simple, often explored by the bluntest of actions, it’s neither a subtle film nor a terribly articulate one and its at its best the more visceral the experience it provides. The best scene is probably the opening ten minutes as the situation is established and how very, very alone Monte and daughter Willow are is allowed to sink in. If Monte fails to file his daily report their life support will automatically shut off.
Although the film struggled to engage me for most of its running time, largely because it felt so inert, I will admit that the final scene did somewhat click with me. There was a cumulative effect to everything I had just sat through, even if I wasn’t able to draw any specific meaning from it. Or maybe I just liked the ending song.