How long will it take for audiences to accept that Robert Pattinson has moved on from the sparklingly moody vampire franchise Twilight? We’ve been far more willing to embrace and celebrate his co-star Kristen Stewart’s headlong rush into indie and internationally-tinged narratives. But he has worked with David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars), Werner Herzog (Queen of the Desert), Anton Corbijn (Life) and Benny and Josh Safdie (Good Time).
I would compare his post-franchise career to that of Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Harry Potter ventures, although Radcliffe employs a dark humorous bent in his choices.
Pattinson favors dramatic and elliptical projects where he brings a stillness to the proceedings. His fans would probably bring up his movie idol good looks — his perfect cheekbones and expertly coiffed hair — but that completely dismisses how effectively he uses his soulful eyes to draw us into angsty worlds. Pattinson is capable of pulling in all attention and light, which makes High Life, his latest film from director Claire Denis, yet another stellar addition to his filmography.
And what an English-language debut for Denis, the French director known for the 1988 Palme d’Or nominee Chocolat and the 2013 Un Certain Regard nominee Les salauds (both from the Cannes Film Festival) as well as the much-lauded Beau Travail from 1999. Denis incorporates poetic transitions and an intense focus on the bodies of her characters to lull audiences into explorations of colonialism, all of which make her shift to science fiction an unlikely choice. She and Pattinson are ideal partners-in-crime, intent on upending conventional expectations.
High Life offers an intriguing blend of body horror (à la David Cronenberg), brooding existential melancholy (which is, to me, more reminiscent of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia than, say, either version of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris) and eerily grounded sci-fi tropes (the daily ship-based interactions recall the Danny Boyle/Alex Garland collaboration Sunshine). This film isn’t aimed at the CGI-hungry masses or even the more star-driven niche market. Pattinson lacks the broad mainstream appeal of George Clooney or Natalie Portman, who come armed with Oscars that confer acceptance and gravitas beyond box office success and franchise fandom.
But there isn’t a need for any of that in Denis’s surreal fable. High Life shifts from the present dilemma of Monte (Pattinson) and his young daughter surviving in isolation aboard a ship drifting through space, to glimpses of the past. That shift feels like a completely organic narrative choice, especially considering the extreme circumstances and backgrounds of the characters involved. Monte and his daughters are the last members on a spacecraft where an assembled team of convicts was sent to space hurtling toward a black hole with hopes of tapping into an alternate energy source that could be used to save humanity.
What becomes clear though is a simple (and quite eternal) question — is humanity worth saving?
André Benjamin (aka André 3000 of the Hip Hop duo Outkast) joins Pattinson as one of the criminals on the deep space enterprise; he too brings a welcome sense of a man with a dark history striving for redemption. For the role, Benjamin has to turn down his megawatt smile and presence and hold all of that inward. In this way, he matches Pattinson as if they were separated siblings rejoined and discovering their connection.
The real darkness on the horizon is not the black hole the team seeks, but comes in form of Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the pseudo-science officer on the mission who, like everyone else, has a secret past of her own. Dibs, however, has no desire to turn the page. She embraces her evil deeds like a comic book villain by hatching plans to create life via artificial insemination. But she does so against the wills of those on the journey and with deliciously twisted glee. Aside from manipulating the crew, she also forces them to face the unsavory aspects of themselves — resulting in the inevitable thinning of the herd.
High Life doesn’t rocket toward its goal with fast or furious purpose. It feels like the journey we’re witnessing has actually already reached and entered a black hole and, by the end, might be on the verge of exiting out the other side. With that perspective in mind, it is quite a ride. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R)