High Life is a science fiction film — the first by brilliant French director Claire Denis — but don’t go into it expecting Star Wars or even something like Arrival. For her first exploration of the genre (not to mention her first English-language film), Denis has stuck to her distinct, naturalistic style, dispensing with almost anything futuristic or high-tech in favor of a low-fi esthetic that place the focus firmly on her characters and even serves to heighten the otherworldly nature of her narrative and setting.
When we initially meet Robert Pattinson as Monte, he is tending to the maintenance of the spacecraft he’s traveling on, all alone except for a toddler he’s taking care of. The infant appears to be his daughter but it’s not completely certain at first who they really are, how they got on board the ship, or why there are a number of other corpses stored away in a refrigerated storeroom/makeshift morgue.
Flashbacks eventually reveal all: Monte is one of a group of criminals whose sentences in prison are reduced in exchange for volunteering on this mission, which involves journeying to a nearby black hole to determine its potential as a source of energy. The mission is commanded by a captain (Lars Eidinger) who already seems to have checked out mentally even before he gets sidelined physically, but is actually led by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a combination of Nurse Ratched and Dr. Pretorius who is experimenting with having the criminals reproduce in space through artificial insemination.
Also on board: the “Fuckbox,” a sort-of virtual reality room where the voyagers can go to relieve their sexual stress in lieu of knocking boots, voluntarily or otherwise, with anyone else on board. It seems to be Dibs, however, who gets the most use out of it, and her oversexed demeanor combined with guilt over murdering her own children makes her experiments much more sinister and symbolic while solidifying her “mad scientist” status.
Even under the best of circumstances — and the volatile nature of the ensemble (which also features Suspiria’s Mia Goth and OutKast’s Andre Benjamin) plus the generally depressing nature of their surroundings and voyage are far from ideal — it would be difficult for anyone on a trip like this to stay composed. There is a series of escalating incidents that lead to a barbaric free-for-all atmosphere aboard the ship and results in the scenario that opened the film — yes, it seems that by the time the smoke clears, one of Dibs’ experiments worked and Monte is indeed the father of a rapidly growing young lady.
A meditation on time, loss, memory and death, High Life is above all a Claire Denis film. Those are all prime concerns of hers, and she’s less interested in the trappings of the genre she’s working in — which she subverts in a way that counterintuitively makes it an excellent new entry in the field — than in the ways that the above factors impact her flawed and all-too-human people.
Pattinson is impressive in the center of the film, not saying all that much but using his eyes and body language to convey Monte’s transformation from resigned, cynical prisoner to loving father. While the rest of the cast shine as well is lesser developed roles, the movie’s other star is clearly Binoche, who takes Dibs over the top and keeps going as a crazed hybrid of mother figure and sorceror, her chaotic combination of cold menace and overpowering sexuality the whirlwind into which the others are swept.
While the interiors and exteriors of the ship are drab and utilitarian — the corridors look like something out of a rundown, derelict hospital, while the ship resembles a box more than a spacecraft — Denis provides some starling visuals, such as the way someone just drops out of sight when forced out an airlock instead of floating away, or in the terrifyingly majestic, humbling vistas of silent space through which the ship lumbers. The cumulative effect is one of immense existential dread, as the bending of time and space erases all that these misfits left behind and leaves them hurtling towards nothingness.
High Life won’t be to everyone’s tastes: Denis relates the story at her typically methodical pace, leaving a number of blanks for viewers to fill in on their own, but she punctuates the hypnotic tone with moments of raw, ugly violence drenched in bodily fluids. A strange, heady mix of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Carpenter’s Dark Star, with a seasoning of early Cronenberg body horror, High Life is nevertheless all Claire Denis and all-consuming — and, on its own terms, great, challenging science fiction.
High Life is playing now in limited release and expands this Friday (April 12).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye