Nearly all of High Life takes place aboard a spacecraft careening across the cosmos at light speed. On the outside, it looks like a portable speaker, rectangular and sleek—more Apple than NASA. The inside is another story. Though certain wings are awash in seductive shades of orange and blue, most of the ship has all the ambience of an underfunded mental hospital. Fluorescents dimly light hallways. Ventilation shafts protrude awkwardly around the perimeter of rooms. The computers would appear outdated in a middle-school library of the late 1990s. Even the Nostromo, the dingy intergalactic big rig of Alien, was more cosmetically appealing. It had a Gothic grandeur completely absent here.
Though High Life presents a future as shitty as our present, it wouldn’t be accurate to call its vision “realistic,” exactly—not when the airlocks can be safely opened like normal doors and objects plummet downward through the vacuum of space, as though compelled by a phantom gravity. The film occupies some liminal zone between high- and low-tech, between mysterious and mundane, between realism and unreality. Call it the poetic alternate realm of Claire Denis, the French writer and director of this captivating, messily human space odyssey. High Life isn’t just her maiden voyage into science fiction. It’s also the first of her films in English.
Denis, of course, speaks a language beyond words. Her best movies, from Beau Travail to 35 Shots Of Rum to White Material, often communicate nonverbally, through gestures and images and the scrambled logic of their achronological storytelling. It can take a hot minute to get your bearings, to get a firm grasp of what’s going on. High Life, for example, thrusts us without prelude or ceremony into the daily routines of Monte (Robert Pattinson), raising an infant alone on a doomed vessel. Is the child his? How did the two get there? What’s their destination? Flashbacks eventually provide answers, but not before a quiet, lonely stretch of deep-space single parenthood, Denis luxuriating in the eerie solitude of Monte’s situation, as he mends the hull while cooing into a baby monitor and logs vital signs into the ship’s mainframe, assuring it keeps the life-support active.
Exposition, brief and clumsy, reveals that Monte was part of a crew of death-row inmates, offered an alternative to the gas chamber in the form of an interstellar suicide mission: a probable one-way trip to the galaxy’s nearest black hole, whose energy they’ll attempt to harness. (“We’ll be bone and dust while they’re still hurtling through space,” says one of the architects of this “recycling” initiative, raising the unaddressed question of who, exactly, the new power source will benefit.) Denis assembles a motley international ensemble of actors—Mia Goth, Lars Eidinger from Everyone Else, OutKast’s André Benjamin—to play her astronauts. Most of them remain ciphers, their crimes unexplored, their identities diced up with the timeline; fleeting 16mm glimpses of life back on Earth don’t so much fill in gaps of character as provide an opaque emotional context. But then, who can remain themselves when deprived of freedom?
As Denis shoots it, High Life is more prison drama than fantastic voyage. Rare are the cutaways to the glorious celestial canvas. Instead, claustrophobia is emphasized, underscoring the irony of being cooped up while the whole universe expands boundlessly around you. Motivationally, the most interesting of these travelers is the mad scientist figure, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche, who starred in Denis’ last movie, the uncharacteristically gabby Let The Sunshine In). Convicted for murdering her own children, this “sperm shaman” takes to conducting fertility experiments on her fellow inmates, trading drugs for precious fluid—an arrangement that the celibate Monte resists. Does her obsession with creation, caught somewhere between carnal desire and a warped form of atonement, mark her as an avatar for the filmmaker? High Life, perhaps even more so than her disturbing vampire riff Trouble Every Day, pushes Denis’ fascination with flesh into dark places, into the body-horror sphere.
There are shades, certainly, of a kindred spirit in corporeal fixation, David Cronenberg—not just in the way High Life finds something chilly and remote in Pattinson’s star power, but also in the weirder digressions, like a rather Cronenbergian sexual apparatus called The Fuck Box. Here and there, Denis time travels for cinematic scraps: Opening shots of the ship’s verdant garden—an oasis of green in their crummy industrial digs–recall the ominous prologue of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Meanwhile, the vaguely archaic technology evokes a whole era of pre-digital-age science fiction, suggesting that the film’s space is less outer than alternate—a universe of and by the movies. Like the best of the genre, High Life is, of course, as much about right now as it is about the hypothetical later. Monte’s anxiety, as a man trying to raise a child on a ship bound for oblivion, is really a black-hole distortion of more earthbound fears: the tension between our desire to live on through our offspring and our fear of the future we’re bringing them into.
Truth be told, High Life, which Denis co-wrote with regular collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, doesn’t entirely cohere. It’s less hard sci-fi than an inconclusive rumination on desire, mortality, and parenthood. (You have to wonder, at least a little, how it might have turned out if the novelist Zadie Smith, who was originally tapped to write the screenplay, hadn’t left the project over creative differences.) But a certain Rorschach quality is inextricable from the appeal of this great director’s sensual, elliptical style, conducive to exploring but not solving the mysteries of creation, in several senses of the word. High Life, which proves once and for all that “Claire Denis movie” is a genre onto itself, speaks to more irrational concerns, mostly through its memorable, striking, sometimes shocking imagery. One very early shot, never explained, is particularly haunting: a bloody organ, probably a heart, dropped into a very deep well. We follow it into the darkness, like two lonely souls pushing forward across the universe, or anyone else facing a scary, sprawling unknown.