Wednesday, April 24, 2019

High Life

“So far away” 
(from the Carole King song of the same name on her 1971 Tapestry album)
Review by Ken Burke

                               High Life (Claire Denis)   rated R

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): This is a drama set within the tropes of outer-space science-fiction (although the director insists her story’s not sci-fi, so you’ll have to make your own decision; I did, which is simply not to agree with her based on everything I know about this genre) in a future more technologically-advanced than our present when a spaceship traveling at near the speed of light is carrying a group of convicts toward a distant black hole to perform 2 crucial experiments: (1) to see if babies can be birthed in space, then survive (although the women become pregnant through artificial insemination from sperm taken from the men’s masturbations because the [mad, some might say] scientist in charge of these trials forbids direct sex among these prisoners), and (2) to see if energy can be harnessed from the black hole, possibly for use in other forms of interstellar travel.  In that we begin this film with a lone male survivor on this spaceship casting dead bodies of the others out into the void, leaving him along with a baby, the spoiler aspects of this plot involve how all the others onboard came to be deceased along with what happens to the man and child now they’re alone on this forlorn journey.  Given High Life (which has nothing to do with joyous existence or even a type of Miller beer) is in a very limited number of theaters at present (despite having been out for a few weeks) you might want to cheat a bit by reading my spoiler-filled comments just below because, even if you do eventually watch this film through DVD or downloading options, knowing what happens probably won’t actually spoil whatever enjoyment (if any) you might find in this experience (which many critics are celebrating at a much higher level than I have); in fact, knowing the plot details might help in not needing to waste your time on unraveling what can easily become narrative confusion in various places, allowing you to focus on the haunting atmosphere permeating this film, which is probably its strongest attribute. 

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: Much of what we see in High Life is actually flashbacks from the opening scene (with some voiceover-explanations of the plot’s happenings by Monte [Robert Pattinson], a voyager on the deep-space-vessel named 7); in that opening, however, Monte gathers up his 6 now-dead-crewmates, dresses them in their spacesuits (for what reason I don’t know), jettisons them into the void, then continues on his interstellar journey with a baby on board, even as they contend with inconsistent light and air within their confined space, no radio contact with Earth.  As the flashback-clarifications begin, we learn this box-shaped-ship (apparently, at the velocity it’s traveling—99% of light-speedthere’s no drag so it can be a simple form, unlike the grand designs we’ve come to expect in more action-oriented-sci-fi-movies) is headed out into the vast unknown with a group of convicts who’ve accepted this mission in lieu of Earth-bound-prison (although this ship’s not unlike a grim prison itself, except there seem to be no guards, no enforcement-weapons, no challenges to authority—mostly in the person of Dr. Dibs [Juliette Binoche]) where their scientist-as-warden is immediately concerned with learning if human reproduction is possible in such an environment, longer-term focused on reaching a distant black hole (they’re still 4 years away) to see if it can be tapped as an energy source, possibly as needed fuel for even more dramatic ventures into the cosmos.  Regarding the reproduction experiments, the male prisoners are required to enter a contraption known as The Box to ejaculate their sperm which Dr. Dibs then uses for artificial insemination on various female convicts; sadly, none of the resulting pregnancies have yet been successful, with the babies all dying from radiation poisoning.  No sex among the prisoners is allowed (I’m assuming to keep relationship bonds from forming, maybe as another means of preserving control without physical incarceration; however, Doc Dibs puts what looks like a metal dildo to use in this orgasmic-chamber, giving herself quite a ride at one point [with nude shots that almost push the R rating into NC-17 territory], leaving what appears to be a good bit of blood afterward).  Monte refuses to masturbate, though (“Chastity over indulgence.”), resulting in some taunting from Ettore (Ewan Mitchell), the certified asshole of the group, although Monte does have some personal conversations with Tcherny (André Benjamin) in the lush garden aboard the ship, likely a main source of food, along with recycled water, much of it from the collected human waste.

 One female in this group, Boyse (Mia Goth), is antagonistic toward Dr. Dibs’ ongoing reproduction experiments, angrily shouting these pregnancies are doomed to failure; she’s especially bitter when one of her fellow-voyagers, Elektra (Gloria Obianyo), dies after delivery, with the child dead too (soon the ship’s captain's also gone, from a stroke).  I’m not fully positive a brief flashback we see of young Monte (Mikolaj Gruss) also includes Boyse (although he’s with some young woman who looks like her), but he’s certainly wiling to protect her when Ettore attempts to rape Boyse, beating him to a pulp before Boyse’s roommate, Mink (Claire Tran), finishes him off.  ⇒From here on, life just gets to further states of “low,” rather than any sense of “high” this trip might have hoped to accomplish.  One night Dibs increases the sedative doses for her charges, rapes Monte as he’s unconscious, collects the sperm, inserts it into Boyse whose resulting baby becomes the miracle Dibs longed for as the child survives; others die though, first the pilot Nansen (Agata Buzek) who volunteers to steer a shuttle into a different black hole as they approach it, but Boyse kills her with a shovel, takes her place, flies into the molecular cloud surrounding the hole only to be vaporized by the forces of this powerful phenomenon.  Mink attacks Dibs, injures her, but Monte kills Mink, after which Dibs simply ejects herself into space, unsuited, for an instant death (no command of The Force to float unharmed like General Leia Organa [Carrie Fisher] in Stars Wars: The Last Jedi [Rian Johnson, 2017; review in our  December 22, 2017 posting]).  Tcherny tells Monte he can’t go on any more; in the next shot it’s clear he’s buried in the garden, maybe from suicide.  So, these events account for some of the bodies we initially see Monte dumping into space, but I counted 6 so others must have somehow expired as well (further, I'd swear there were more convicts shown in earlier scenes, but maybe not).  Over time, the baby grows into adolescent Willow (Jessie Ross), sole crew member with Dad Monte as they continue on course toward the intended black hole (yet, more than 4 years must have passed) only to encounter spaceship 9 which automatically docks with them; however, there’s no help to be found there as the only survivors are dogs from some other experiment (in another flashback we get the bitter info none on 7 were destined to return to Earth, but they—or at least, the convicts—didn’t know their fate).  All of this wraps up as Monte and Willow approach the intended black hole, decide to board another shuttle (which looks sort of like a car with no wheels) to head right into it, leaving us to ponder what might have happened to them as the screen goes from a narrow band of bright yellow light into a broader band filling the screen as yellow becomes white, the journey (at least the part we watched) coming to an unknown ending.⇐

So What? At times when I’m trying to decide what to see/review on a given weekend I have some qualms I’m skewing too often toward esoteric fare which is more aesthetically-intriguing to me than some of the current-box-office-heavyweights—now including a ghost-horror-movie, The Curse of La Llorona (Michael Chaves), made $26.3 million in its domestic (U.S.-Canada) debut, and Breakthrough (Roxann Dawson), a Christian-inspirational-story (based in real events) about a boy who falls into an icy river, revives from a coma with brain functions intact after Mom fervently prays for him (this one had a $14.8 million debut plus another $5.8 million overseas)—but then I see my choices are playing in only a few hundred (or dozen) theaters, so (despite having a wider variety to pick from in Berkeley or San Francisco) I wonder if I’m serving my mostly-silent-readership (still hovering lately at about 29,000 from around the globe) with my reviewing decisions, especially when last week’s (April 17, 2019) look at Diane (Kent Jones) and The Invisibles (Claus Räfle) has netted only about 281 unique hits so far.  However, when I looked more closely at responses to my postings over the last couple of months, while I did get noticeably more hits sometimes when I included mainstream movies (Captain Marvel [Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck; review in our March 14, 2019 posting], Us [Jordan Peele; review in our March 27, 2019 posting]) but not others (Dumbo [Tim Burton; review in our April 4, 2019 posting], Shazam! [David F. Sandberg; review in our April 10, 2019 posting]), I found many of those more-esoteric-choices also drew notable action—Never Look Away (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2018; review in our February 28, 2019 posting) the best at 2,183 hits (it also got the most “reaches” [whatever they are] in reply to my announcement of it on our Two Guys Facebook page, 116, where I normally get only about 12-15, no matter what’s being reviewed).  Noting all that as background consideration, last weekend—when I knew again I had time for only 1 film because of previous plans for attending a play plus a big Easter dinner with the in-laws—once again offered me precious little (including Little [Tina Gordon]) to consider in the mainstream I hadn’t already seen, so it was time to go artsy-fartsy once more, with a choice between High Life, with a focus on masturbation in outer space, or Little Woods (Nia DaCosta), with a focus on crime among desperate citizens of North Dakota; hoping to appease our (assumed) common prurient interests, I opted for High Life, which was intriguing but confusing in places, including the implications of the title which could refer to travel away from our planet being “high” in the skies (and beyond, like with the Toy Story franchise’s Buzz Lightyear), while “life” could easy connect to Dr. Dib‘s obsession with extraterrestrial birth, but maybe Denis intended something else.

 While I see elements of High Life as resonant with aspects of 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)—human beings traveling deep into the cosmos in search of answers to questions about the nature of our immense universe and our place in it—and Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)—mysteries about the possible metaphysical nature of the “great beyond”—director Denis (in the press notes you can access from the film’s official site, noted below in the Related Links section of this posting*) clearly distances her vision of her work from both of these sci-fi classics; in fact she doesn’t even see this as a science-fiction film at all, despite its outer-space-setting, its easy-assumption of scientific explanations (the 7 spaceship is traveling at near-light speed, getting us into the realms of Star Wars [admittedly, more in the Fantasy genre than actual Outer Space Sci-Fi] and Star Trek), its focus on what our species will/must face in the future as conditions on our planet continue to move beyond the tipping point for survival: “But above all, and I must insist, High Life is not a science fiction film even if there are healthy doses of fiction – and science thanks to the precious participation of the astrophysicist Aurélien Barrau, specialist in astroparticle physics and black holes. The film takes place in space but it’s very grounded.”  In fact, what she seems most interested in here is how this story of a quest for survival in constantly-demanding-conditions ultimately leads us into areas of human relations that are even more “taboo” than masturbation (at least in those sex-adverse-communities most likely to offer faith-based-support for Breakthrough; considering the easy access now in our society to self-pleasuring-devices and Internet porn I doubt the warnings against such acts so prevalent in my 1960s teenage years hold much value anymore outside of Breakthrough zones), that of no-guilt-incest.  (At this point I should note I do consult with my cinema-loving [and me-loving, I’m happy to say]-wife, Nina, on what we see together each week [sometimes I catch an extra one on my own if she’s not interested], but I’ll take full responsibility for what emerges from High Life, which I also find resonant with aspects of the porno “classic” Behind the Green Door [Artie and Jim Mitchell, 1972]—Denis would likely take exception to that, or maybe not—thus, whatever raunchiness it exudes, you can absolve Nina from thinking that was a reason to see it [other aspects of raunchiness in her persona are another matter entirely {thank heaven!!}].)

*Well, no, you can’t access this, damn it!  Maybe my computer’s haunted, but when I took these quotes here and in the next paragraph from that site yesterday in preparing this review the press notes link was available; now it’s not there so you’ll just have to trust me I didn’t make all of this up!

 Denis continues:It’s the story of a man alone in space for the rest of his life, with a baby, most likely his, who will become a young woman and eventually his femme fatale, if ever he makes up his mind – this sort of knight, this Perceval, this scout of another story – to break his vow of chastity. This is what happens at the end of the film when the young woman – who has no other man on hand, who doesn’t even know that this man is handsome because she has never had anyone to compare him to – makes the first move. I wanted both of them at the end standing as if before the marriage altar. The young woman’s ‘Yes’ is like the bride’s ‘I do.’ We are approaching the forbidden planet, the absolute taboo. A girl is also a woman. Incest is the quest for the ultimate in sex, because it is forbidden. ‘We don’t need anyone else,’ the young girl says. It is a film about despair and human tenderness. About love, despite everything.”  (I can’t help but wonder—in my less-than-pious-thoughts—if Denis isn’t exploring some revised attitude toward one of the most foundational taboos in human history, which I’ve always wondered how this prohibition squares with Judeo-Christian Biblical accounts of humanity’s evolution after Adam sired Cain and Abel with Eve; the book of Genesis says Cain had a wife, just as all their later sons and daughters continued to procreate, so if it wasn’t “all in the family,” where did other non-close-relative-mates come from?  Who are these “sons of God” and “daughters of humans” noted in Genesis 6:2-4?  For that matter, Genesis 9-10 details the progeny of Noah’s sons and their wives, but who were the women these sons’ sons (only the males are noted in these texts) made new life with after the Great Flood?  I’m not really looking for rational answers here because to me it’s all myth/literature anyway rather than Divine revelation, but it does raise some interesting questions in regard to High Life’s seeming-ultimate-intentions as vaguely implied by the film’s final events, even more so with the director’s comments.)  Given Denis' extensive statements, both in those press notes and in the interviews I’ve cited in this review's next section below, High Life may indeed be more significant than I’ve initially understood it to be, yet based on what I experienced while watching it I can’t say I was all that concerned about what becomes of Monte and Willow as they venture into that unknown black hole.

Bottom Line Final Comments: In all honesty, I guess I must not be one of Denis’ die-hard-fans (she’s routinely noted in reviews I’ve read of High Life as being one of the great living filmmakers; maybe she is, but I just haven’t seen it yet, no offense intended to her actual talent), possibly because of the several works she’s previously directed I’ve seen only Let the Sunshine In (2017; review in our June 14, 2018 posting) to which I gave a lowly 2½ stars, one of the worst ratings I’ve assigned to the several hundred cinematic presentations I’ve reviewed in over 7 years of this blog’s existence, but I was out of sync with the critical community then (Rotten Tomatoes offered 85% positive reviews of Let …, Metacritic reviewers gave a high [for them] 79% average score) while High Life nets 83% RT positive responses, a 75% average MC score.  That level of support from the intended-arts-arbiters hasn’t helped much at the box-office, though, with the film only just now up to 146 domestic theaters even after 3 weeks in release so it’s taken in only about $668.7 thousand in gross sales (just to be snarky: the 2018 re-release of 2001 … pulled in $3.2 million after 2 months, playing in just 13 domestic theaters during that time while Let the Sunshine In [sometimes translated from its original French title as Bright Sunshine In] played for 3 months domestically in a maximum of 67 theaters with a gross of $866.7 thousand so High Life may slightly top that if it can hold on for a few more weeks [along with everything else awaiting the onslaught of Avengers: Endgame {Anthony and Joe Russo; opening April 26, 2019—you can rest assured I’ll be reviewing that one}]).  But, an item on which Denis and I agree is the sublime beauty of Brian Wilson’s song (co-written with Gary Usher) "In My Room,"  (on The Beach Boys 1963 Surfer Girl album; this video’s a live 1964 performance with mediocre imagery, solid audio) which she sees* as a lovely celebration of cherished isolation, the getaway-place we all desire for our needed private moments, yet an impossibility on this space voyage except when the travelers are alone in The Box, experiencing dictated-autoerotic-pleasure, but even that’s tainted by the shipboard-prohibition against actual intercourse, maintaining a level of tension in this crew unresolved except with Dr. Dibs herself whose Box experiences push the limits of physical endurance while intercourse for her is merely a crass means of gathering Monte’s assumed-superior-sperm to impregnate fierce Boyse.

*This information comes from another interview (51:46) with Denis (and Pattinson) than the one I’ve put in the Related Links section a bit farther below, which I didn’t cite there because Denis doesn’t consistently speak directly into her mic so she’s hard to understand at times, plus at about 30 min. into the video the conversation trails off into some other topics due to that audience not having seen this film yet (but you’re welcome to watch if you wish for further insights it might offer).

Here's the famous recent photo (first ever) of an actual black hole some 55 light years 
(about 330 trillion miles)
 from Earth; I don't have an image of the black hole from High Life,
but they look remarkably the same so Claire Denis did get solid scientific help with this film.
 Still, "In My Room" (with its 1960s surfer-band-connotations) isn’t fully right for my usual tactic of a Musical Metaphor to wrap all of this up, so instead I’ll go for an obvious (but more subtle when you allow yourself to meditate on it a bit) option, Elton John’s “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)” (on his 1972 Honky Château album) at DtVBCG6ThDk (a YouTube-sponsored-video by Iranian filmmaker Majid Adin, which I think captures the melancholy sense of both the song and Denis’ film quite well); even though this tune is simply about a spaceship-crewman on regular runs between Earth and Mars “burning out his fuse up here alone,” the prisoners on High Life’s 7 making their way into deep space are the epitome of “And all this science I don’t understand It’s just my job five days a week [although this crew is on duty 24/7, never to return to Earth because …] it’s gonna be a long, long time ‘Til touchdown brings me ‘round again to find I’m not the man they think I am at home [… a convict, hurtling far beyond our solar system to explore black holes, with an unlikely return to the life he once knew because what he’s a part of now, so] it’s gonna be a long, long time,” with no understanding yet of what awaits within (beyond?) that looming black hole, except (back to Ms. King) it’s “so far away” where, for our lonely survivors of spaceship 7 “Traveling around sure gets me down and lonely Nothing else to do but close my mind I sure hope the road don’t come to own me There’s so many dreams I’ve yet to find.”  Therefore, Earthlings, meditate on what may exist in such a void until next we meet in the equally-mysterious/often-incomprehensible-realm we call Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark.
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about High Life: (32:36 interview with director Claire Denis
and actor Robert Pattinson)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come. 
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 30,127 (while mystery-folks from that spooky Unknown Region [maybe it’s in the newly-found-black hole] continue to be our most enthusiastic supporters, I’m proud to say last week we finally got responses from the usually-silent-continent of Africa so welcome, South Africa, to our rambling-endeavor; as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:


  1. High Life was certainly worth my time and I would recommend it.
    First, there is Juliette Binoche, a stunning French actress who has always impressed me in roles such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, English Patient and Chocolat. Second we have Robert Pattinson (Twilight) who is likely to be the next Clint Eastwood as his roles mature. So the actors alone make the film worthwhile. Then we have a mystery aspect of High Life which is unraveled slowly and deliberately. Amusingly, they have a Flintstones spaceship (much of the switchgear looked like it came from Home Depot), but it is still capable of life sustaining recycling (The Martian) along with good old light speed slowed aging relative to earth.

    The potential for a new Adam and Eve did play out pretty clearly toward the end and certainly created an interesting dilemma for the characters and the audience. It also included a potential "evolution of man" element recalling an aspect of 2001, which was clearly "light years" ahead in production values and story telling.

    At the same time, High Life can be seen as a bit soft porn but the real taboos never materialize. The film's "no sex on ship" rule could have been punishment, control or just religion's moral value enforcement building to the new Adam and Eve moment. Overall the film could have used a better script, tighter editing and better production values. But overall it is a keeper.

    Concerning the minimal comments:
    I suspect there are a few reasons, one being a lack of realtime social media feedback on these Wordpress sites. Perhaps if the reviews were posted in their on Facebook, they would stir more dialog. Facebook is easy, works well, allows editing and is what most people use along with youtube for this kind of work. Facebook is limited in formatting and has trouble notifying the audience when they are following a number of sites. Of course Facebook is the wild west and is therefore lawless. Second, I suspect Wordpress comments may be lost when they are submitted via IOS or Android, platforms that have become the defacto "computing device" for most people. I have experienced lost comments on IOS. But one can always go with the old adage "No News is Good News" and keep up the good work.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks for these extensive comments. Had I seen your insights prior to deciding to view this film I would have been even more intrigued to see it, might have found more value in what I encountered. I agree with you on the acting quality of Binoche (a true talent) and Pattinson (marvelous progression since Twilight), also appreciate the note about how their near-light speed-travel slowed down the aging process for the surviving characters. I didn't connect as clearly as you did on the "new Adam and Eve" aspect (but it's valid, ties in to my questions about incest in human progression as reported in Genesis). I guess I wasn't convinced they would survive their trip into the black hole even though I should have learned from Interstellar (review in the Nov. 13, 2014 posting) that such survival is possible.

    I do already make mention of our Two Guys FB site in the Related Links section but could also note it again toward the very end in addition to leaving comments in this blog dialogue box (I used to allow unfiltered ones but was getting too much spam so I had to switch to the the approval process now in use; glad I did because except for you I'm still getting mostly spam in these replies). I think you have to connect with the FB site in order to leave comments (just like you have to be a Friend on personal sites to leave comments on those), but that shouldn't be too much of a problem. No matter, though, as I'll just focus on the "No News is Good News" attitude, especially with the monthly unique hits numbers still in the 30,000 range. Ken