High Life is an experience.
It is a psychosexual sci-fi drama that demands the viewer not only pay close attention to minute details but also return for multiple viewings. It delves heavily into taboo subject matter, including the relinquishing of corporeal autonomy for what is ultimately deemed a lost cause. But the inclusion of other issues — rape being the most glaring — helps to bring this deep space narrative down to earth. This is one of the best sci-fi films of the decade.
The English-language debut of French auteur Claire Denis (White Material, Let the Sunshine In), High Life stars Robert Pattinson as Monte, the sole surviving crew member of a doomed mission to the edge of the universe. Among a lineup of death-row inmates that include himself, drug-addict Boyse (Mia Goth) and the recovering Tcherny (Andre “3000” Benjamin), they are all under the supervision of the controlling and manipulative scientist Dibs (Juliette Binoche). The inmates signed on to the expedition believing it would lead to lighter sentences, but after years of probing, drugging, and being at each other’s throats, they come to understand that they are never going back to Earth.
At the heart of Denis’s film is a tale of redemption. Pattinson’s Monte develops a reputation for refusing to take part in Dib’s reproductive experiments, believing that this allows him to maintain control of his psyche as well as his body. He wants to do better with his life — what’s left of it, anyway — and the viewer sees this during his interactions with his daughter, Willow (Jessie Ross).
High Life demonstrates how far Pattinson has come from the days of Edward Cullen. He has benefited tremendously from working with skilled filmmakers such as David Cronenberg and the Safdie brothers. But in High Life, his desperation and utter vulnerability are on full display.
In the film’s opening sequence, Pattinson communicates the terror of losing not only his own life support but also his daughter's through entirely nonverbal shifts. As the ship begins to lose power, he trembles; we see it in his eyes, his silence, his grip on Willow’s infant body. Once power is restored, he returns to a state of peace.
The crew of this ship not only feel powerless; they see themselves as property. In one scene, Benjamin’s character reveals to Monte that Tcherny is not his real name. It's one that was assigned to him by his superiors. In one of two major experiments, the crew is given the role of breeding stock, in the hopes of conceiving a child able to withstand the radiation exposure they all face. By signing off on this opportunity, they are now simply bodies, incubators, seemingly finding freedom only in death.
Near the film’s conclusion, Monte and Willow discover a ship much like their own. After discovering the lifeforms on board — dogs and even puppies — an outraged Willow lashes out against her father’s cruelty, to which a broken Monte responds, “What do you know about cruelty?” He knows that Willow’s life, much like his own, has become the box they float through space in.
High Life’s astounding conclusion leaves the viewer in tears, hoping to find more in the story as the credits cease. Similar to films like Solaris and Never Let Me Go, High Life entangles itself in questions not only about the meaning of life but the meaning of the body and the mind. When relieved of the tethers of humanity, the characters’ lives can finally begin, leaving behind the cell they once feared would act as their universe and their grave.