Blog Directory CineVerse: High Life lessons

High Life lessons

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

What do black holes and  the future of the human race have in common? Director Claire Denis explores this and other answers in her decidedly dark and different sci-fi cinematic treatise High Life, starring an underrated Robert Pattinson. Our CineVerse homework assignment last week was to further investigate this puzzle box of a picture, which yielded several insights and observations, detailed below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

What makes High Life memorable, unexpected, distinctive, and surprising, especially compared to other science fiction films you’ve seen?

  • This narrative is kaleidoscopic and elliptical, bouncing around in time and space in a nonlinear fashion – telling its tale through plentiful flashbacks of scenes on the ship as well as visual snippets of the characters as their younger selves back on earth. With this curious storytelling approach, the filmmakers challenge viewers to piece together the plot and try to understand character motivations and contexts.
  • There are no sci-fi visual clichés or predictable scenes. The ship looks nothing like we’ve observed in previous outer space depictions; the vessel’s rooms, corridors, and equipment don’t necessarily appear futuristic or state-of-the-art; many interiors are dim and dingy; we see no space battles or extraterrestrials; and, at least until the last scene, the characters aren’t in awe of their interstellar vistas or discoveries. Instead, the focus is primarily on the flawed human beings aboard the spacecraft versus any technological marvels.
  • The score is hauntingly dissonant and nontraditional, using synthesizers that provide a musical undercurrent as well as a tonal sound design.
  • Additionally, this is a thinking person’s science fiction film. Far from being popcorn entertainment, it’s a work that postulates ideas and key questions about humanity, existentialism, and our fate as a species.

What questions arise and remain unanswered after watching High Life (caution: spoilers ahead)?

  • Why is Dr. Dibs allowed to conduct these experiments on the ship?
  • Why does Dr. Dibs apparently have more authority on the ship than the captain?
  • Why does the ship resemble a box with no curves?
  • Why does Boyse kill the pilot Nansen to voluntarily enter the black hole?
  • Why does Dr. Dibs commit suicide?
  • Why are dogs the apparent only survivors on the identical ship?
  • Is Monte committing incest with his daughter?
  • Why would Monte and Willow want to head into the black hole?
  • What’s happening back on earth?
  • How are we to interpret the ending?

Major themes

  • The laws of nature versus the laws of man. Recall how Monte says: “Break the laws of nature and you will pay.” This film explores how imposing man-made rules in a restrictive environment clashes with our natures and can lead to violence and transgression.
    • New Republic reviewer Jo Livingstone wrote: “Rape, sewage, prison, violence, scars on the belly: High Life is a film about the aspects of existence that we keep hidden, because if they were not repressed they might take over the world. But are those natural laws, or man-made limits?”
  • Committing taboos that violate the rules. These humans are on the ship because they have committed taboo acts that landed them in prison. We also witness most occupants on the ship commit forbidden/offensive acts or express the desire to do so: rape, murder, physical assault, and possibly incest.
    • BFI critic Erika Balsom wrote: “In this film of bodies and power, Denis probes the force of prohibition and the inevitability of transgression. High Life is a thought experiment: what happens when the rules that govern life are suspended or breached? When are these rules necessary safeguards for collective existence and when are they cruel infractions of personal freedom? Who gets to decide? Taboos seek to protect the body politic, but they also exert a regulatory force. Their refusal can yield to emancipation, but equally to exclusion and punishment.”
  • Futuristic challenges involved in perpetuating the species. If human life on earth is inevitably doomed and we are forced to exist in outer space, this film argues that successful fertility and reproduction and enforcing rules related to them will be difficult due to scientific limitations and the selfish and violent nature of human beings.
  • Sexual desire and its expression is the last true freedom any prisoner has. Despite imposing laws on the convicts related to sexual activity, their base desires cannot be completely suppressed.
  • Paradise lost. Even though the crew has a healthy, vibrant, and picturesque garden on the ship that provides sustenance and oxygen, it’s a cruel reminder of the beautiful natural world these humans have left behind on earth. Like Adam and Eve, they’ve been cast out of the garden of Eden and are now forced to live in exile far removed from their natural homes.
  • Exploring a spiritual heart of darkness. The ship is on a mission to investigate black holes and attempt to extract power from them, but black holes serve as a metaphor here for the darkness in these characters’ souls and the uncertainty and unknown that awaits them.
  • Have human beings truly evolved, and are they capable of coexisting and remaining civilized in futuristic environments?
  • The consequences of recycling human beings. This movie examines the often ironic risks and rewards of attempting to repurpose human lives for a different role or objective.
    • Dr. Dibs killed her own children back on earth but is now attempting to become a Darwinian fertility queen/sex warden in outer space, with mostly disastrous results, although her efforts have produced one triumph: the birth and life of Willow.
    • Monte has chosen celibacy but is raped and later forced to raise Willow – an offspring he didn’t intend – on his own.
    • Boyse kills Nansen and attempts to pilot a vessel she was not trained to use, possibly resulting in her spaghettification death in the black hole.
    • Tcherny chooses to be buried in his beloved garden, which means he will now serve as fertilizer for the plants.

Similar works

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Solaris
  • Interstellar
  • Alien
  • Outland
  • Silent Running
  • The Martian
  • Under the Skin
  • Moon
  • The World, the Flesh, and the Devil
  • Ex Machina

Other films by Claire Denis

  • Bastards
  • Beau Travail
  • Chocolat
  • Trouble Every Day
  • White Material

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP