Tuesday, May 07, 2019

High Life – taboo-ridden, hell-bound sci-fi tale of reproductive genetics and inhumanity (QFT from 10 May)

Director Claire Denis eschews the normal space vistas and shiny white sets to examine the worst sides of humanity as a set of prisoners head off on permanent day release towards a black hole in a dingy craft that looks like something Blue Peter might have created.

Living anything but the titular High Life, the prisoners are granted a second chance to escape long prison sentences to adventure into space on a mission that plans to harness the energy of a black hole. However, the ship’s doctor has a second plan, to harvest sperm and experiment with reproduction against the backdrop of dangerous levels of radiation.

Told in a non-linear fashion, the story begins with Monte (Robert Pattinson) maintaining the ship and tending to the needs of a toddler whose screams create discomfort in the otherwise lonely environs. Slowly, the fate of other crew members and the genesis of the child are revealed. Stuart Staples’ score staples the switches of scene and time together, perhaps the only beautiful aspect of the film.

Juliette Binoche plays Dr Dibs as a sensuous siren with waist-length hair and some unorthodox methods of collecting sperm samples. When two ships dock you’re left in no doubt that they’re mating together. Flying into a black hole sounds a lot like labour. The ship’s pleasure ‘box’ adds to the sleaziness (way more explicit that Woody Allen’s ‘orgasmatron’ in Sleeper, establishing Dibs’ sexual tension and guaranteeing the film’s 18 rating, while a violent sexual assault furthers the screenwriters’ premise that sexual desire and a thirst for satisfaction is at the basest end of both humanity and inhumanity, surviving depression and certain death.
“What do you know about cruelty?”
Playing the calmest and most collected character on board space ship ‘7’, Pattinson is rugged and resilient, with Monte never visibly aging throughout the 15 or so years period covered by the film. Without Pattinson’s sense of control and perspective, High Life could have descended even further into its black hole of depravity.

While the budget may have been small – with a small set and brief exterior model shots – the ambition for High Life was large, though I’m not sure it was fully achieved over its 113 minutes. The ending faces the same issues Soderburgh’s version of Solaris (2002), and yet avoids the nearly-happily after ever fate of Sunshine (2007).

Given the rules around how long young children can remain on set, it’s very unusual to have such a young cast member. We watch little Willow grow up and are left wondering what her ‘normal’ will be given the circumstances of her birth and life. Yet there is a paradox to the reproductive experiment at the heart of the plot: since the mission has little expectation of surviving the black hole, and has not had much success by the time the vessel arrives in its vicinity, Dr Dibs’ research is nearly as vacuous as the space she’s travelling as there will be no new Adam and Eve to propagate if they survive to the other side.

Aside from the changing aspect ratios at various moments of the film – which feel ragged rather than artistic – High Life is an amazing piece of filmmaking. The flashbacks are never accidental, woven tightly into the unravelling story. It doesn’t need Alien’s monsters to uncover the evil on-board the ship. But ultimately the film’s subject matter is taboo, human rights-busting and frequently vile and violent, this hell-bound spacecraft is too much like life on earth to be enjoyable.

High Life will be screened in Queen’s Film Theatre from Friday 10 May.

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