What is the future of the Earth? What is the future of mankind? In most films, these are literal questions, and are treated as if asking the same thing. Specific scenarios and easily digestible answers are the norm – environmental damage, nuclear war, a remnant of mankind exploring new worlds – these abound, but invariably the characters are just reflections of us. Their heroism, villainy and motivations are familiar and very much of our age. The second question is ignored in favour of the first, because the first makes for great special effects.
In the hands of an auteur like Claire Denis, the first question is largely irrelevant, but the second is everything.
High Life, Denis’ first fully English film, is nominally science fiction. There is a crew of space travelers moving at “near light speed” hoping to “harness the energy of a black hole,” but those details are thrown out almost reluctantly, as quick asides to appease viewers who are used to knowing “the mission.” Denis’ real focus is on her ship’s crew.
This ship is actually a prison, staffed by Death Row inmates who agreed to head into deep space and be subjected to experiments by the ship’s doctor, to reduce their sentences. When Denis wonders, what is the future of mankind, it is a bleak answer. These characters are all emotionally bereft. Their interactions bear little joy, but also little rage or wonderment. They are muted and a bit agitated, but incapable of expressing themselves. The ship has a wicked room called the Fuckbox which various crew use, including most memorably an uninhibited Juliette Binoche, but despite it being built to give them pleasure, the ship seems to extract more out of its crew than the other way around. Humanity’s future is a grim one, with all of today’s anger and resentment boiled down to a sense of offputting discomfort.
With her focus on a lack of emotions and of passion, there was perhaps no better choice to lead Denis’ cast than Robert Pattinson. Pattinson is putting together a solid career playing cold, empty men who struggle to react with anything resembling empathy to the world around them. Whether as a multibillionaire in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, a vampire in the Twilight series, or a man using his brother to commit crimes in the Safdies’ Good Time, Pattinson’s face is a cipher that an auteur can use in a number of ways.
And, having made two films with Cronenberg, who has obsessed about man’s slow disappearance into technology for years, Pattinson doubtless felt right at home in Denis’ prison ship, where she puts an impressive focus on machinery taking over the job of passion from its sullen crew. Not only does the ship feature the Fuckbox, but everywhere there are milk and semen-like fluids flowing out of machines and into pipes and drains, and numerous shots of liquids bubbling and moving around. Some of those fluids are manipulated by Dr. Dibs (Binoche), whose experiments seem less goal-oriented and more there to help her rediscover the passion missing from her life, at any cost. Binoche’s credentials are impeccable, and this represents a new career peak for her as she takes on an aggressive and shocking role.
Is High Life truly a direct look at what humanity might become in the future? It is impossible to say, for sure. Claire Denis does not provide answers, and she barely provides the questions. Her stories are often enigmatic, and it is up to you to decide what her films are about and come to your own conclusions. I saw in her characters the end result of a humanity unwilling to grow to the challenges of the world in front of them, and of the quick willingness for people to let their lives be run by technology. Others perhaps may not.
But the film ends with a fascinating scene, one that threatens to turn a viewer’s ideas on their head. It is a moment of hope, a direct statement that maybe such bleak ideas aren’t as locked in as we might think.