Space: the final frontier, as the line goes, stands as a testament to the last unexplored territory for humanity, but it just as often serves as the final resting place of its pioneers. Those same starry plains full of hope and promise can quickly become a prison with no escape. You might even say space, by its very definition, has always been a prison. Instead of metal bars it has a vacuum. Instead of solitary confinement, an endless black void. Even as a simple setting it often becomes a central character because of its potential for merciless, terrifying destruction.
It’s been so often represented as a place of adventure and possibility in part because it always harbors the potential for death. This is what I love about films set in space, particularly those of the horror or science fiction variety – they take full advantage of its sinister potential. Although, even a space film that’s historical or romantic is instantly elevated when the vast and menacing blanket of space surrounds its narrative. Damien Chazelle’s haunting biopic of Neil Armstrong, First Man (2018), and Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary, Apollo 11 (2019), offered different and mesmerizing sides of the same coin, particularly Armstrong’s perilously close-call landing on the moon as fuel reserves were just seconds away from running out. Although space as prison isn’t just a convenient metaphor in cinema, it’s often literal. There is a small subgenre of space films that double down on the space as prison theme: the prison in space film.
Claire Denis’ new film, High Life (2018), is just the most recent and galvanizing example taking up the prison-in-space mantle. It stands uniquely apart in the subgenre in that it treads into opaquely high art territory with true Denis flare. However, this lineage has more often found itself less in the realm of high art than reveling raffishly in lowbrow and cult territory.
Right off the top David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992) and Pitch Black (2000) come to mind. Of course Alien 3 had the distinct honor of taking the Alien franchise off its highly acclaimed mantle, and in my mind mainly because of its horrid alien CGI. However, its prison production design is immersive, and although the prison isn’t technically in space but on a planet, it nevertheless takes full advantage, in much the same manner as Pitch Black, of the isolation and containment prison and outer space have to offer.
Other recent installments in the genre include the surprisingly fun Lockout (2012), directed by James Mather and Stephen Saint Leger and starring Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace, as well as the nearly indecipherable French film Dante 01 (2008), written and directed by Marc Caro and starring Lambert Wilson. Who knows, if the Escape Plan series, originally starring Stallone and Schwarzenegger, keeps trudging forward (there’s currently three in the series for those keeping count) it might actually descend low enough and aspire to a prison in space. So, in the spirit of containment I’d like to incarcerate two prison space films on opposite ends of the taste spectrum together: High Life and Fortress 2: Re-Entry (2000). They are clear examples of the “high” and “low,” so to speak, of the genre, and let’s just see who comes out on top.
If High Life has garnered the dubious label of high art, its signifiers are earned through the attractively (although sometimes troublingly) opaque narrative and raw, salacious imagery. Robert Pattinson is just one of about a dozen prisoners who chose forced space exploration to our nearest black hole over an Earthly death sentence. The prisoners aren’t merely imprisoned, though, as is the case for most films in the genre; they are also subject to the reproductive experiments of the wonderfully unhinged eroticism of Dibs, played by Juliette Binoche, who acts as the prison’s pseudo-warden. Her ultimate goal is creating a new born baby despite the dangerous radiation of space as a means of retribution for her own troubled past.
Denis skips around in time like a child playing hopscotch, often leaving the viewer disoriented, but that seems to be the point. Her visuals are reminiscent of Lars von Trier in his most depraved sexual sequences – Antichrist (2009) and the Nymphomaniac: Vol. I & II (2013) come to mind. Even the most psychotic and frightening sequences are stunningly beautiful. The dialogue is nearly as existential as the rest of the film, except for one line that curved up a smile on my face. It’s during a conversation between Binoche and Pattinson with clear sexual tension. Binoche teases, “I know I look like a witch.” Pattinson replies with a gentle smolder, “You’re foxy and you know it.” We’ve now briefly drifted into the lower echelons of cinema. I love the repartee here because it feels slightly off-key, which serves as my bridge to Fortress 2: Re-Entry, whose one-liners couldn’t be more apropos for the prison in space genre.
At one point a guard responds to a prisoner who’s invaded his personal space, “What do you want, bozo?” Now, far from being insulting or even mildly impolite, “bozo” could only be a sign of tongue-in-cheek humor. With a plethora of lines like this, Fortress 2 remains far less concerned with the human condition and the ethics of reproduction than with its star, John Brennick, played with dire seriousness by Christopher Lambert, simply escaping prison, which is an actual option since this prison is circling the Earth rather than hurtling towards a black hole.
Fortress 2: Re-Entry has a plot as simple as it sounds – the second stab at containing Brennick by the ominous Men-Tel Corporation. The first in the series, Fortress (1992), kept the prison theme but located it underground. In a surprising thematic overlap with High Life, Brennick and his wife were imprisoned initially for getting pregnant illegally. They had to escape before the baby was born. They become fugitives of the law and live a quiet, peaceful life until they’re found — cue Fortress 2.
But If there’s one thing I learned from Fortress, you just can’t keep John Brennick contained. He’s the Rambo of space prisons. With indulgent zeal, Fortress 2 rips off the most iconic space and prison stereotypes in a star-spangled mélange of schlock. The onboard computer is named Zed; Men-Tel sounds a lot like Tyrell; a cockroach is used at one point as a remote control reconnaissance vehicle; of course there’s a flamethrower fight; and Brennick, to top it all off, does some casual space walking without a suit and with eyes wide open. Spoiler: he’s fine.
So, does John Brennick’s low-budget bravado or Denis’ sensual existentialism come out on top? To be honest, for me, both films scratch different cinematic itches. Prison in space offers double the trouble for filmmakers, and more often than not it overdoses on its potential, creating deliciously lowbrow fare. But as Denis proved in High Life, space and prison are just as well suited to the thin air of the art film, although I have to admit, I’m still hoping for Escape Plan 4: Black Hole.
The IU Cinema screened High Life on June 13, 2018 as part of the International Arthouse Series. Not tired of exploring the confining depths of space just yet? Why not escape from your normal routine and force yourself to go see the original Star Wars trilogy screening at the IU Cinema on Saturday, Aug. 24, starting at 1 pm?
Caleb Allison usually prefers his films slow, cryptic or menacing and doesn’t always understand why. A Ph.D. student at Indiana University, Caleb researches home-video cultures, film history, and production and distribution industries. He is an unrestrained collector of the Criterion Collection, a fan of Super 8 film and a Tarkovsky nut.