At a quick glance, it would be easy to say that the sci-fi genre is dying. It feels like every time you go to the theater you see another trailer for some fabricated comic book movie or a shameless, money grabbing reboot. But, 2019 has proven that there is still a crucial place for original science fiction with Claire Denis’s High Life and James Gray’s Ad Astra. Both slow-paced, contemplative character studies, these films tell deeply human and personal stories set in a larger than life world. Space is grand and open, but the problems the characters are faced with are completely personal and inescapable. While High Life focuses on the human body and its desires and complications, Ad Astra takes a deep dive into the mind and the layered psychology we go through in our relationships with others and ourselves. Set against the vastness of outer space, both films serve as reminders of just how small and fragile humans truly are.
High Life is a film composed of moments. They’re small and can be conceived as insignificant, but they’re moments that only humans can truly understand and experience. The feeling of sticking your hand out of a moving car and weaving your fingers with the wind. The shaking of shoulders as you try to hold back sobs. The brush of a nose against a cheek. Pulling at your own skin. Clenching your jaw as the fear settles in. Denis plants these moments so precisely that it’s impossible not to feel conscious in your own skin while watching; and that feeling will linger on long after the credits have rolled. These characters, despite being within the expansive world of the galaxy, are bound by their own bodies and their own desires.
Sex plays a large and infamous role in High Life, and Denis knows exactly how it can be one of the most liberating and confining parts of being a human. One of the most talked about things from this film was the “Fuck-Box:” a masturbatory center for the prisoners on the spacecraft to let loose. The relief and sexual liberation was supposed to create a smoother environment, but instead it just creates more chaos among the inmates. The lead character Monte, brought to life in a subtle but powerful performance from Robert Pattinson, saw this coming from a mile away. When introducing the fuck-box in one of the many voice overs, he says: “Except for me. I kept my fluids to myself.” But, nonetheless, Monte is brought into the mess. It’s all about desire. Our body craves pleasure, and we think we won’t feel free until we get it. But when you succumb to it, you can’t stop. We just continue to want whatever it is that we aspire until we get it and feel good for a few moments, only to just revert to those primal desires when it’s taken away from you. People can become violent when they don’t have it. Some people can keep their calm and humanity, while others turn to something vile. That vileness can come in the form of something appallingly and apparently violent, such as the attempted rape of Boyse, or something manipulative and obsessive, such as Dibs raping Monte in his sleep to collect his sperm sample. Both are disgusting acts, but Denis approaches the scenes very differently in order to show the two halves of humanity. One represents the primal aggression and violence that we came from, and one represents the more evolved and cunning evil that we have developed. Denis tackles the first scene from a point of pure disgust, showing its grittiness and violence. But, she takes a different approach with the second. It’s more sensual and refined. This is not to say that Denis condones the second act, but rather critiques how society has made a general acceptance that we are so much more evolved than we once were, yet, in reality, humans still have the deepest capabilities for evil. There’s more glamor and elegance in our society now, though, that sometimes we completely miss it. It’s a study of what our desires can do our morals, and how the intricacies of the human body ties into it all.
While sex and violence do play a very significant role in High Life, it is not the only desire that overwhelms the story. Despite what is mentioned above, some of the characters in High Life are good people; specifically Monte and his daughter, Willow. For them, it’s all about survival and life. Monte wants to give his daughter the best life he can give the circumstances. He loves her and treats her tenderly. It’s also all about life for Dibs, played malevolently by Juliette Binoche, whose entire goal is to impregnate one of the female prisoners with the sperm samples of the men on the ship. Monte even refers to her a “shaman of sperm,” showing how she’s become so obsessed with reproduction that it’s religious. And, when that life is finally brought into the world, her desires should be fulfilled. But it’s still not enough. And for the mother, Boyse, played by Mia Goth, the physical changes to her body drive her off the wall. She sobs as milk leaks from her breasts. She shakes as she falls asleep, going through extreme biological changes with no one there to help her. Once again, everything comes back to the human body. Through all the trials and tribulations of High Life, that’s always what it comes back to. Everything about our lives is inhibited within our body, yet it’s something we think of so rarely. But, by taking these ideas of the human body and putting it in such an abstract, empty setting; each and every small detail is amplified to the extreme. Denis takes a larger than life concept and narrows it down to our own skin and bones. That contrast between openness and imprisonment reminds us of just how small and easily broken we are. By the end of the film, you’ll be more aware of every movement you make and every breath you take. You’ll be reminded you are just a soul within a body, interacting with other souls, all trying to satisfy your own desires.
While High Life is a study of the body, Ad Astra is a study of the mind. Instead of going on the typical space epic route, Gray crafts a stunningly unique and personal story that studies the psychology of human relationships and loneliness. From the very beginning of the film, you can tell that it’s special. It’s poetic. It’s lonely. It’s an inner crisis wrapped in the drapes of an existential crisis. While watching the film, you can’t help but feel like McBride: reaching out, looking for something to fill a hole in your heart. The film’s intimacy and melancholy may push certain audiences away, but it will strike directly into the soul of others. It’s a layered, complex character study that uses space as a means to advance the story and put the isolation of McBride on full display. The direction in this film is very intentional and emotional; maybe not all of the choices make sense at first, but in the end it all comes together to create a feeling and atmosphere that’s so overwhelmingly powerful and human. Each shot evokes a specific emotion, and, paired with Max Ritcher’s beautiful score and the existentialist voice-overs from Brad Pitt, it makes the viewer feel simultaneously so empty and so fulfilled.
Ad Astra, at its core, is a film about the effect of human relationships. Though most of the film is full of loneliness and longing, all of it ties back to McBride’s relationship with his father. Our relationships, and lack thereof, can have some of the most significant impacts on our mental health. McBride’s father leaving him made him turn into a lonesome person. He isolated himself from everyone he loved, going off into space and thus leaving any chances of a normal life behind him. He pushed away the woman he loved; he never started a family. You can feel the desperation dripping off his character the entire film, torn between the self-destructive and isolative tendencies of his mind and his desires to lead a fulfilled life. The entire film acts as a deeply intimate character study, observing the effects of abandonment on mental health. The complications of father/son relationships also play a large role, but the psyche of McBride is what is truly pushed to the forefront.
One of the main reasons why Ad Astra works as well as it does is due to Brad Pitt’s phenomenal performance. We get some quick cameos from other actors throughout the film, but Pitt is the one who carries the entire film on his back. It’s a stripped back, raw, emotional performance that we rarely get to see executed this well. He shines when is alone; contemplative and teary-eyed. McBride seems to know what a bad place his mental health is in, at once saying that he is “looking forward to the day his solitude ends.” But he seems to be so focused on his past and the abandonment from his father that he can’t see a future. He continually pushes his mental health to the side. It’s an internal conflict that a lot of us have to go through, and Pitt captures every feeling so perfectly and genuinely. He doesn’t need a lot of dialogue to convey the crushing feeling of lost hope and mental exhaustion. He tries to contain his loneliness, but it slips out. It’s such an emotive and genuinely human performance that we don’t get to see from male actors too often. Instead of the typical stoic archetype, Gray and Pitt are able to craft a deeply complex character that shows his emotions in such an authentic and heartbreaking way, despite trying to fight against them. Roy McBride is a character that is going to connect with so many people. As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, and has a very complicated relationship with my father, Roy McBride connected with me on such a personal level. That’s not to say it’s all depressing, though. It’s hopeful and inquisitive. It reminds us that we’re not alone in how we feel. Maybe we’re alone in the world, maybe we’re not, but there are still other people out there who are going through the same things as you.
In both Ad Astra and High Life, the use of space and science fiction elements are not the focal points of the story. These films were not created for you to be mildly entertained while watching explosions on an unknown planet. Instead, space acts as a contrast to the struggles of the characters and the central themes. Both Denis and Gray are able to craft intimate and personal stories told in a large and expansive setting. Space is used as a medium to propel the story, making the characters and the audience feel completely sucked into the world, while also isolating them in the vastness of the universe. Ad Astra and High Life are both able to prove that sci-fi can be so much more than what we think of on a surface level. One a harrowing study of the human body, one a meditative introspective on the mind: both absolutely stunning works of art.