High Life is a personal journey into the unknown
Have you ever had the feeling that you were watching something so personal, so full of specific details and circumstances, that it wasn't really meant for you? So it is with Claire Denis' High Life, a remarkable science-fiction movie starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, and André Benjamin. This was my first Denis film, so perhaps my expectations were not properly aligned with her wavelength. My expectations were set purely on my recent love affair with Pattinson's post-Twilight career (I've come to call myself a Pattin-son, because, you see [me editor has wisely cut me off here]), which I've been fascinated by and wholly pleased with. Oh, and that everyone on Twitter was constantly referring to "the fuck box", which is indeed a device within this movie. Pattinson + science-fiction + fuck box = completely unfair and out-of-context expectations. Can you blame me?
That's not to say this movie isn't good. It is in fact quite good, possibly great, but I'm not sure that's for me to say. I personally walked away with very little idea of what Denis is trying to get at in her movie. I had a difficult time connecting with these characters, all of whom are convicts and death-row inmates sent on scientific missions to the farthest reaches of our universe to collect data on black holes. At least, that's part of what's going on, and in that way it is kind of an inverted Sunshine, where we watch the effects of slowly moving towards the Sun on a group of scientists. Whereas that movie seems like a metaphor for the madness that befalls those trying to understand God, this is a movie about what madness befalls those that journey towards nothing, towards oblivion, and what meaning they try to create on that journey.
But there are other scientific missions at play here, the origins of which aren't entirely clear, but the effects of which are the focus of the film. Namely, whether it is possible for women to get pregnant and successfully give birth while traveling near the speed of light. When stated this way, it sounds like a very scientific investigation; however in the film you'll find that the scientific method isn't necessarily in play here. Emotion is instead the rule of law aboard "7", the research vessel our protagonists are on, and this leads to dire circumstances for all involved. And if I had to put my finger on what it is that Denis is toying with here, it's responsibility. What responsibility does each of us have to our emotions? To our past? To our future, be that our offspring or anyone else's?
But I am only able to reach that conclusion after hours of discussion surrounding this movie, exclusively with others that also felt at a distance from Denis' work here. It's not that I found it confusing, or boring, or even exhausting in any way. To the contrary, I was wrapped up in this. The performances are fascinating, the music is enthralling (and Pattinson sings a song through the credits that I implore you to sit through and listen to), and the film making is genuinely inventive, using jump cuts in unusual and interesting ways. It was very clear to me as I watched this that something very specific is going on here; there is something that Denis is trying to impart to me, or at least express unto the world. But that something is not attainable by me, at least not right now, at this juncture in my life. This movie was constantly just beyond my reach, just outside my understanding.
To some extent, it put me in the position of the characters themselves–hurtling towards a black hole with little idea of what they would find there or even the purpose or meaning of finding it, whatever "it" may be. And in that way, it is perhaps much like the experience of living, where we assume there is a purpose but aren't privy to it. As I type this and unravel more of my own thoughts and feelings about this movie, I begin to like it more and more, though I still feel I have years of living to do before I can adequately contend with this, if that's ever a thing I will be capable of. I suspect there are elements of this that are so personal, even in a more general sense of gender or culture, that I might never make connections with those things unless someone points them out to me. And that's very much OK, though I wish I found more to grasp onto in the moment.
I genuinely liked this movie and would recommend it to others, though I don't know how I would sell them on it. Certainly, to simply say "It's a sci-fi movie starring the Twilight boy that features something called 'the fuck box'" works, but isn't really doing it any favors. This is a story clearly based in real feelings and emotions about the world and our place in it, so personal that I would likely be offended if someone said they hated it and attempt to defend it, despite not really knowing what I'm defending (and understanding perfectly why someone might hate it). Perhaps I would just tell them to get high, and think about life, mannn. As reductive as that sounds, maybe it's getting harder and harder to find a reason to just sit and ponder the cosmos, and maybe that's a decent enough reason to sit back and enjoy the bizarre and emotional trip that is High Life.
High Life opens today in Philly theaters.