High Life is like no outer space movie you’ve ever seen, even if you recognize some of its artistic influences.
A bare description of the plot — about a doomed crew of astronauts traveling millions of miles from Earth — might suggest Ridley Scott’s Alien and its countless gory imitators. The spaceship has a lush greenhouse that seems inspired by Douglas Trumbull’s eco-parable Silent Running, while the mood of existential gloom feels straight out of Andrei Tarkovsky’s science-fiction landmarks Solaris and Stalker.
But the sensibility behind High Life is unmistakably that of the great Claire Denis, one of the most exciting filmmakers working in France and indeed the world. Her movies, such as Beau Travail and White Material, are hauntingly beautiful objects, often elusive in narrative structure but overpowering in texture and atmosphere. She takes an honestly grim view of humanity, but her camera is always extraordinarily attuned to the beauty and complexity of the world that humanity inhabits.
That world has now expanded to include deep space, and for Denis, a filmmaker whose style already tends toward the hallucinatory and dreamlike, it feels less like a departure than a logical progression. If you’re coming to her work for the first time, you might find High Life chilly, forbidding and mysterious to the point of bafflement. You might also be held rapt by the intoxicating beauty of her images, the hypnotic rhythms of her editing and her skill at weaving an atmosphere of unspeakable dread.
Robert Pattinson gives a quietly charismatic performance as Monte, a young man we first meet taking care of an adorable baby girl aboard the spaceship. It’s a tender but disturbing sight: What is a child doing in outer space, and why are the two of them all alone? Why does the ship look like an old, boxy relic from the ’70s, full of leaky pipes and outdated computers?
The answers emerge as the story moves slowly but purposefully back and forth through time, reuniting us with the members of Monte’s crew and revealing the sinister circumstances under which they died.
We get to know a few of them, including a soulful gardener played by the hip-hop artist André Benjamin and a fierce young woman played by Mia Goth. We learn that all of them, including Monte, were convicted of violent crimes on planet Earth and then blasted into space as part of a government mission to investigate a distant black hole: an interesting way to serve out a life sentence, all in the name of science.
The group’s self-appointed leader is a doctor played by a diabolical Juliette Binoche, who’s hellbent on performing an experiment of her own. She wants to achieve human reproduction in space, to bring a child into this God-forsaken emptiness.
A master manipulator who’s not above using physical restraints and psychological games to get what she wants, Dr. Dibs collects sperm samples from the men and uses them to inseminate the women. The only one who doesn’t take part at first is Monte, who has taken a vow of celibacy.
Denis’ filmmaking has a visceral, sometimes splattery intensity, and in High Life she directs our attention not outward, toward the mysteries of the cosmos, but inward, toward the messiness of our own biology. What fascinates her here is the human body, its needs and desires, the way it reacts and breaks down in a hostile environment. If there’s another movie spaceship with a private autoerotic chamber designed to relieve the astronauts’ frustrations, I haven’t seen it.
As the doctor’s experiment progresses and the group dynamics begin to spin out of whack, High Life builds to an almost ecstatic frenzy of physical and sexual violence. The movie becomes a stunning vision of human entropy, a space odyssey smeared in blood, tears, breast milk and other effluvia.
That may not sound terribly inviting, but Denis’ vision is indelible. High Life is some kind of strange masterpiece, and its brutality is ultimately matched by its exquisite tenderness of feeling. In time the story returns to that vision of Monte and his young child, traveling together toward an uncertain destination. Denis gets you to feel the depths of their isolation, but also their curious contentment: The great, unfathomable void of outer space has become the only home they will ever know or need.