There will be some debate as to whether or not “High Life,” a new space opera from director Claire Denis, can be classified as sci fi or not. It takes place on a starship, is set in the outer reaches of the solar system and features other sci fi faves like black holes and space stations but the setting almost takes a back seat to the very earth-bound humanity on display.
Robert Pattinson plays Monte, one of a group of death row convicts sent on a suicide mission to deep space aboard a space station. When we first meet Monte he’s alone save for his infant daughter Willow (Scarlett Lindsey). Soon, via flashbacks, we learn more about the situation, the social breakdown with the other passengers and Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the supervising doctor who performs sexual experiments on the crew, as the space station hurtles toward the abyss of a giant black hole.
There are certainly sci fi aspects to “High Life” but all the molecular clouds and the spacey instances of spaghettification (look it up), etc are trumped by, I want to say drama, but that’s not quite accurate. There isn’t much drama to be milked from a story where the characters are in lock down with little or no room for growth. There are some good performances here, particularly from Pattinson as a man who survives through discipline, and Binoche whose cold, clinical obsession to create new life borders on the sadistic, but the film is more about creating atmosphere than forming dramatic moments.
Denis is unafraid to linger on a moment, to allow the incremental passing of time aboard the ship to be reflected in the film’s pacing. Sometimes it works, offering a glimpse into the mundane lives of people for whom there is no future, but often it feels as though time has stood still and not in a good way. Add to that pages of whispered expository dialogue and you’re left with a film that maintains a sense of hope that Monte and Willow will be OK but doesn’t give us much of a reason to care what happens to them.