High Life (18) **
Madeline’s Madeline (15) ****
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (PG) ***
Arctic (12A) ***
Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes (12A) ****
The idea of a Claire Denis-directed sci-fi film turns out to be more intriguing than the reality in High Life. A meandering meditation on what makes us human, it sees the veteran French auteur alighting on answers involving autoeroticism, human ejaculate and misguided notions of heroism in a film that can sometimes be thrillingly abstract, but more often than not is crushingly dull.
Starring Robert Pattinson as the last adult survivor of an apparently doomed interstellar mission, the film starts creepily enough with Pattinson’s character, Monte, carrying out essential maintenance on his drifting-through-space vessel while a baby attempts to pacify herself. As the camera drifts through the ship’s sterile corridors and verdant garden, we get a sense that something terrible has happened here, an ominous feeling underscored by this incongruous pairing and the unsettling tension it generates. In space no one can hear you scream, claimed the tagline for Ridley Scott’s Alien, but trying telling that to a baby and her stressed out father.
Unfortunately, as Denis starts filling in the details via flashbacks and a lot of very tedious exposition – it involves a dying Earth and an ethically dubious (and nonsensical) plan to save it by sending death-row inmates into space on suicide missions to harness the energy of black holes – the film has no real idea of how to make its wilder ideas cohere into something meaningful or compellingly outré.
Those ideas take shape mostly around Juliet Binoche’s character, Dr Dibs, a fertility obsessed medic with a dark past. In the flashback timeline we see that she’s somehow highjacked the mission and is using it to experiment on her fellow crew members, extracting bodily fluids in return for pharmaceutical treats. She also lets them use her specially designed masturbation chamber (though she doesn’t call it a masturbation chamber), a blacked-out cubicle replete with handy ligatures, a pommel horse-esque chair with a retractable dildo, and automated car-wash-style rollers to clean everything down after each onanistic adventure.
Binoche – ever the game performer – demonstrates the inner workings of this space in the film’s most erotically charged moment, which sets her character up in stark contrast to Monte, who attempts to exert control by practicing abstinence. It’s not clear if Pattinson’s casting is part of a sly joke by Denis here, riffing as it does on the celibacy themes of Twilight. Whatever the case, like David Cronenberg before her (another director obsessed with sticky excretions), she’s certainly a beneficiary of Pattinson’s willingness to reject mainstream Hollywood. What he’s getting out of it is another matter, since Denis, for all her artful digressions, seems unwilling to jettison convention altogether. The film eventually plays out like the umpteenth lo-fi riff on 2001 and Solaris and it’s hard to escape the sense that she’s using provocative imagery the way blockbuster hacks use expensive action sequences: to prop up some generic storytelling.
Madeline’s Madeline, on the other hand, offers plenty of form-challenging cinematic reinvention, this time in the service of a remarkable coming-of-age film that drills down into the creative process and the politicisation of art and personal expression in the current moment. Co-written and directed by Josephine Decker, the New York-set film stars newcomer Helena Howard as Madeline, a troubled 16-year-old who finds solace from her mother (Miranda July) in an experimental theatre troupe. The troupe’s pregnant director, Evangeline (Molly Parker), is struggling to find the right subject matter for the politically charged collaborative show she’s trying to devise, but when she starts bonding with Madeline, she see’s an opportunity to subtly appropriate Madeline’s life story to make an authentic work about mental illness. What follows is a quietly radical film about who has the right to tell what story, one that cuts seamlessly between its three excellent female leads’ points of view to both deconstruct what we’re watching and transform it into an astonishing exploration of the increasingly
blurry and messy line between life and art.
Capitalising on 2016’s Pokémon Go craze, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, sees the now 24-year-old video-game franchise get its first live-action film. Ryan Reynolds voices the eponymous private eye, a fuzzy yellow furball who teams up with the film’s 20-something protagonist (Justice Smith) when the latter’s father goes missing in the human/Pokémon metropolis of Ryme City. The plot pretty much recycles Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but it’s fine for younger kids who perhaps don’t have the bladder control for Avengers Endgame.
Extreme weather and a CGI polar bear are just some of the trials Mads Mikkelsen’s plane-crash survivor has to battle in Arctic, a terse survival thriller that gets some mileage out of its snowbound setting. Unfortunately, a script largely uninterested in the interior life of its main character proves the biggest obstacle to this transcending its status as just another man-vs-nature endurance test.
Extreme weather features again in Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes, an engaging documentary about the Scottish climber. MacInnes literally wrote the book on mountain rescue, but having survived countless brushes with death on his various expeditions, he faced a fairly ignoble fate in his 80s after being sectioned for reasons that remain a little hazy. The film charts his remarkable attempt to rescue himself from personal oblivion by re-engaging with his well-documented past – something the film smartly uses as a cue to look back at his incredible life and career.