High Life review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
I can recall being mesmerized the first time I saw video footage from inside the International Space Station. It looked so astounding not so much because the zero-g gravity looked fun but that there was a cozy and quiet nature to the cramped space. Plenty of science fiction in recent years has taken note of how such quiet allows for more human nature to be explored in a contemplative nature. High Life sticks out as another example while also taking sharper focus on the sexual and violent.
Told in a non-linear fashion, we’re introduced to a spaceship circling around a black hole with prisoners onboard for an experiment in breeding. Prisoners are given chores while scientists formulate the genes for the best specimen. This would initially sound like the setup for a baby to transform into a blood-sucking alien but this is where the non-linear storytelling assures us nothing so fantastical will occur (thank goodness). We’re introduced early on to Monte (Robert Pattinson) as the quiet and stressed father of the child Willow. With nobody else on board, Monte is responsible for both the health of the child and the safety of the ship. We also learn that something happened to everyone else.
The events that unfold are striking in how slowly they build up to something terrifying. During the time with the prisoners, we learn of how hopelessness soon wash over them with emptiness for the future. While tending to the ship’s garden, Monte speaks with one of the other subjects about missing life on Earth. The prisoner mentions that he has a son on Earth and hopes he’s doing well. Monte coldly informs him about the passage of time out in space, that his son could either be an adult or dead by now. The prisoner, still content, speaks about how time ceases to be a thing you think about in space. And so does life, eventually.
What follows is a dark contemplation on human life and the future surrounding it. As the experiment continues, things go from bad to worse. Prisoners start becoming violent and rape soon becomes a component of being pent up and aggravated. Yet these moments are offset when we skip to future and take in the more calming and weary moments of Monte attending to Willow. He bathes her, keeps her fed, fixes her dolls, and even tries to keep her calm while working on the station. There’s plenty of affectionate moments where we see the two of them just sleeping together, a brief bit of relaxation and escape from the stress of their confined world.
Pattinson’s performance is exceptional here. He always feels as though he’s taken in the environment in the clinical way he responds towards while also quietly thinking about how hard the situation is on others. There’s a deep sadness within his eyes about trying to keep everything running smoothly when everything seems to fail around him. Lights go out, tools are lost to space, crew members betray him, and conditions grow worse. There’s also a darker past to Monte himself that we only see brief glimpses of in his awkward walk towards humanity’s future.
Even with some vibrant sequences of circling a black hole, High Life is the perfect kind of unsettling science fiction. It’s unapologetically vicious in its portrayal of mankind's dark side when survival becomes less human within the box of procreation both cold and foul. The film itself offers no easy compromise about the next step. Only to not be afraid as long as you have someone, anyone in the cold darkness of space. There’s a philosophy quote that most of mankind’s problems stem from the inability of one man to sit quietly alone in a room. High Life showcases just how far that quiet man can in a station of maniacs and asks if that nature can carry on to the next generation.