Movie Review: ‘HIGH LIFE’ a sci-fi nutter that throws traditional storytelling out of orbit

Courtesy of A24.

Preston Barta // Features Editor


Rated R, 110 minutes.
Director: Claire Denis
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth, André Benjamin, Agata Buzek, Lars Eidinger, Claire Tran and Jessie Ross

Co-written and directed by 72-year-old French filmmaker Claire Denis (LET THE SUNSHINE IN), HIGH LIFE is a high concept space thriller that pulls from the darkest, most uncomfortable, and perverted corners of the human mind. In no other movie will you see the likes of Academy Award-winner Juliette Binoche strapped to a multifunctional sex chair capable of things even Christian Grey would have nightmares about. It’s one of the most evocative, insane images you’ll ever see, and that’s not the foulest the film gets.

Several moments pitch camp in your memory, as much as you’d like to forget them. One critic at my screening threw in the towel about halfway through and left the theater when the oddity was cooking on high heat. Almost everyone who saw the film with me seemed to spit out what this film was serving. I can certainly understand having that reaction. HIGH LIFE is not going to earn any feel-good awards. It’s an acquired taste that touches on some unsettling truths about humanity.

A father (Robert Pattinson, right) and his daughter (Scarlett Lindsey) struggle to survive in deep space where they live in isolation. Courtesy of A24.

Through the story of a group of prisoners (including Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth, André Benjamin, and Binoche) on an experimental space mission, Denis cogently examines whether or not humanity would survive in the face of absolute desolation. Akin to the themes of William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, we observe the results of a society without rules or regulations. These detainees – who volunteered to be guinea pigs despite not knowing what they signed up for – become different people, form religions and new beliefs, and show a side of themselves they never thought possible. It’s terrifying to watch it unfold, yet its depiction of morality and sexuality are so honest.

HIGH LIFE doesn’t present these complex ideals right away. It teases you into believing you’re about to watch an accessible space drama about a father (a phenomenal Pattinson) trying to survive alone in space with his baby daughter. It better resembles a low-key sci-fi like Duncan Jones’ MOON or Danny Boyle’s SUNSHINE than an eerie astral epic that pairs well with last year’s SUSPIRIA or 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. But soon enough it dives off the deep end and never entirely returns for air. Anything remotely comfortable or familiar becomes savage and alien.

HIGH LIFE is the kind of film that generates a cheerless discussion afterward, not solely about what took place and if you made heads or tails of it, but whether or not it is a good movie. Considering its inclusion of brutal violence and graphic sexual imagery, along with its close encounters with all the fluids of the body including semen, this is a film designed to elicit a response and provoke you. From reading this review, you should gather whether or not this is your cup of tea. If you can stomach it, however, it’s a religious experience to absorb.

Grade: A-

HIGH LIFE is now playing in select theaters, and expands this weekend.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.