Movie Review: Denis goes down and dirty for “High Life”

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It’s worth remembering that there’s no hard and fast rule that says science fiction cinema has to be entertaining. Thought provoking and challenging are intellectually defensible paths to pursue.

That’s the aim of “High Life,” a science fiction exploration of the fundamental inhumanity of humans, who might be at our best when we’re dealing with our own offspring.

It’s not entertaining. It’s discomforting at times, and at others obtuse and downright icky. But it does leave you with a little to chew on, if somewhat less that its creator presumes.

It was co-written and directed by Claire Denis, that queen of acquired taste among her generation of French filmmakers. She peaked for me with “Chocolat,” NOT the one you’re thinking about, and with another film in Africa, “White Material.”

She’s provocative and thought provoking, although “High Life” aims more for the former and flails away at the latter.

Robert Pattinson stars as Monte. When we meet him, he’s in a low-bid contractor’s idea of a space suit effecting repairs on a block-shaped, no frills spaceship. And he’s cooing at a baby in a DIY crib that he’s left inside but is monitoring via com-link.

It’s adorable, and little Scarlett Lindsey, as baby Willow, may be the cutest infant ever to have a co-starring role in a movie.

The ship has a name, stenciled on its corrugated hull and on every rough-hewn article of fabric Monte wears on board — “7.” Everything about it is similarly spare. It’s grungy, lived-in and breaking down. The on-board garden, intended to help feed them, clean the air and water, is overgrown. Lights flicker, things leak and clutter is piling up.

What happened here?

As Monte files his daily online report, which earns the response that “prolongation of life support systems for 24 hours” is his reward for doing this, we piece things together. There were others. They had a mission. All the others are dead.

In flashbacks, Monte takes us back to his rural childhood and his wayward, impulsive, hop-a-freight-with-stoner-friends teens.

Nothing, not even his doting on this not-walking-yet tyke in his care, says “astronaut” about him. Because he isn’t.

The last piece of plot you need to know is that the others were, like Monte, “sentenced” to be on board this ship, that Juliette Binoche plays Dibs, the on-board physician monitoring their health and their mission, and that other flashbacks will fill in some of the blanks about what happened, if not exactly why.

Denis sets up this mission itself as an act of societal cruelty, and expands on that aspect of human nature with most of those on board — impulsive, violent, medicated to tamp down their psychoses and their tempers. André Benjamin of one-hit wonders OutKast may be the mellowest, sanest one there. Mia Goth’s “Boyse,” young, rash and perpetually enraged, is more typical.

And remember, I’ve already identified Binoche’s Marlene Dietrich turn, Dibs, as a “doctor.”

Violence and a generous spattering of bodily fluids ensues. There’s a notoriously sadomasochistic solo sex scene celebrated by some critics (Brits, mostly) in the film’s version of Woody Allen’s “Orgasmatron” in “Sleeper” sex module.

Characters aren’t so much motivated as driven by instincts, which may be an interesting point to make but guts the film of any emotional connection. Pattinson, making a string of arty choices after cashing his last “Twilight” check, gives us nothing as this blank-faced, emotionally-remote “hero” and narrator.

“She’s mine. I’m hers,” he says of the baby, in a heartless monotone.

The warehouse furnished by Harbor Freight and Home Depot settings weren’t a turn-off to me. That’s my favorite gripe about space-travel movies — the ships are all inefficiently roomy, too shiny for their own good. Not even making an effort to simulate zero gravity (one image) is just lazy and makes the enterprise seem malnourished and theatrical — as in community theater.

But if that’s not a turnoff, the film’s obsession with semen, blood and viscera are. And as it lacks anything remotely like a “turn on” (I’m NOT British) or point of connection, I found the over-praised “High Life” haunting, but mercifully forgettable.

And messy to the point of sticky.

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MPAA Rating: R for disturbing sexual and violent content including sexual assault, graphic nudity, and for language

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche and Andre Benjamin

Credits: Directed by Claire Denis, script by Geoff Cox, Claire Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau. An A24 release.

Running time: 1:53

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