Movie #126 2020: High Life (2018)

Back to the immersion into MUBI now, with a high concept, science fiction space horror from director Claire Denis.

High Life tells the gripping tale of a group of death row prisoners who have been specially selected to carry out a mission in space, which involves travelling to a black hole. With a motive like that, clearly the mission is doomed from the start, and Robert Pattinson‘s Monte tells the story of how he and his mysterious daughter (who was born on the spacecraft) became the sole survivors.

While we’re on the subject of his daughter, for a good 50 per cent of this movie, she is played by a baby, who is probably just shy of 1 year old. And I can positively say that that baby is the best baby actor I’ve ever seen. She responds to everything so perfectly its like she’s a full grown human, and I have no idea how they achieved that.

What sets this apart from other space movies? The colours. They’re astonishing – the cinematography is quite literally out of this world. There’s none of that black & white, dark sky colour palette that is so prevalent in most films set in the outer galaxy; it’s all so vibrant and there’s always something beautiful to look at. The greens are particularly pretty, which we see in the form of a contained garden allotment that has been created on board – so hyper-realised. 

It’s nuts that this was made on a mere €8 million budget. I know the majority takes place in one setting but it looks so… expensive? One sequence will stick with me for a very long time, in which we see one of the felons travel to the black hole, only to meet one of the most gory deaths I’ve ever seen in a movie. That’s a pretty big ask when films like Saw exist, but it is truly horrifying. There’s nothing quite like seeing a person’s head slowly and painfully explode as the pressure of the hole climbs higher and higher.

On top of Pattinson’s admirable performance, Juliette Binoche is so frighteningly brilliant in this. I mean, that’s the classiest, weirdest, artiest masturbation I’ve ever seen. How weird does that sound? It’s equally beautiful as it is terrifying, and an inspired sequence on behalf of the director.

I’ve seen the words “challenging” and “slow” thrown about in regards to this movie, but I thought it was gripping as shit. It is so unsettling and unnerving, and this is another one of those movies that I’m glad I went into blind – maybe that’s where others went wrong. It could have done with being a few minutes shorter though, as the last quarter seems almost like an afterthought placed on the end of the film to bulk out its run time.

This is not a film that a lot of people will be aware of; it got a relatively small release not only in the UK, but also in France and the USA. But that’s it. As far as I know, it was not given a theatrical presence anywhere else, and only made a modest $1.9 million at the box office. That’s what you get a for a small release, I suppose. But this does seem like a strange choice to be honest. There are some big names in this movie with the likes of Pattinson and Binoche. Andre Benjamin of OutKast fame even makes a small but pivotal appearance. It’s a blockbuster style movie on an indie budget – the type that would be breath-taking on a big screen. So why not a bigger release?

Alas, these are questions that I haven’t been able to find the answers to. I do believe – although not a classic – this film deserves more attention. It’s just as good as Gravity, if not better in some respects.

High Life is available to stream on MUBI.

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