Wednesday, April 03, 2019

High Life

Claire Denis was at the Brattle, and I wound up sitting back a little further than usual and just getting this picture and one where she looked really goofy. This one has The Boston Globe's Ty Burr with his eyes sort of closed, but, hey, he wasn't the special guest:

I've got to admit, I kind of came into this movie with the distrust of art-house folks making science fiction that I describe in the review, so I wonder how I would have liked it if I'd been as receptive as I was the last time I saw the preview, and I kind of have no idea what had my mood going one way or another on a given day. I honestly don't know whether I would have come out more positive if I'd gone in more positive, and maybe? Going back over my reviews, it looks like I rather liked the previous two films of hers I'd seen, but truth be told, I always look at science fiction done by people dipping their toe into the genre with suspicion.

The Q&A didn't quite justify that attitude, but didn't exactly discourage it, either, as she talked about not wanting to cast Robert Pattinson in a role she'd envisioned as going to Philip Seymour Hoffman because he was so "iconic" in his previous role(s), or how she didn't think of this movie as science fiction because in her mind that genre is about conquest. Both seem like pretty limited views to have at this late date - did she not see Good Time and Damsel? - but at least she seems interested in casting Pattinson again. It was kind of funny to hear her talking about being inspired by Stephen Hawking commenting that interstellar flight will take longer than a single life, which really sounds like someone parachuting into the genre without scouting ahead to find out that you're not exactly inventing generation ships here.

Of course, it was also plenty good for more than me being a jerk sci-fi fan. I really liked that, when asked about learning from or being mentored by some of the people she worked with early on, she made it very clear that she wasn't taking a course on those sets, but working, doing that day's job as best she could first and foremost, learning more from experience than observation. It's an interesting way to put it, both because it recognizes her as being talented from the start and because it's easy to lock people into a master-student dynamic, even if she has arguably surpassed Jim Jarmusch and the like, and she's not an extension of her first employers.

High Life

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 April 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Preview/The Good Works of Claire Denis, DCP)

High Life plays like the sort of science fiction movie made by people who think they're above the genre - striking to look at and packed with interesting performances and coming at certain tropes sideways with enough confidence that one doesn't want to question the logic of it too much. It's a bit better than that, certainly good enough not to be dismissed, but it's certainly the sort of art-house sf whose appearance of profundity comes as much from being aloof as from being sharp or insightful.

Admittedly, my reacting to the film in such a manner is snobbish and cynical in its own way, indicative of my own preferences as to what science fiction should be, but this is the sort of movie that encourages that. It's set on a spaceship that never feels like anything so much as the set of a stage production meant to suggest a spaceship with adorably retro equipment, always prioritizing familiarity rather than having form follow function. The story skips over some of the most interesting situations to explore, and dances around one of the more potentially uncomfortable ones, which is saying something, considering what filmmaker Claire Denis will run with. The film has characters who are strange and extreme but not exactly interesting for it, draining the pulp story they're involved in of much actual drama. The underlying ideas and plot don't fit together well.

The story is itself kind of thin, although it opens with the sort of premise that could be interesting from close examination: A young man (Robert Pattinson) alone on a spaceship except for an infant, traveling on a years-long mission at a significant fraction of the speed of light toward the nearest black hole, making a report presumably broadcast back to the Solar System every night in exchange for twenty-four more hours of life support. If that seems like an unusual crew for interstellar probe #7, it's not the one the ship started with; Monte was one of a number of death-row inmates given a supposed second chance as both the ship's maintenance crew and subjects for Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), who is trying to find a way to overcome the issues that have thus far made conception, childbirth, and infancy in space fraught with danger for both mother and child.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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