Robert Pattinson is lost in space in the fascinating, freaky “High Life,” a film about a dangerous experimental mission to a black hole deep in space. Under the questionable guidance of Juliette Binoche, a motley crew of death row inmates hurtle toward what is meant to be a new power source for life on earth, and what is also a rich source of metaphors for the film’s director, Claire Denis.
The film opens with the extraordinary scene of Monte (Pattinson) working on the spacecraft while an infant, Willow, coos and cries in a playpen inside the spaceship; it takes a familiar situation of a parent trying to get a little something done while caring for a child and sets it in outer space. Monte is the ultimate single father, parenting in an actual abyss, as we soon realize that these two humans are all that is left of a mission gone wrong.
Through flashbacks, it turns out that the mission did not just go wrong — it was rather wrong to begin with. A helpful scientist back on Earth complains that criminals from death row are being offered this space trip deal instead, and are not being told that there is no chance of them returning. As Monte puts it, they are human trash that has been recycled. The work of harvesting the black hole energy is expected to be carried out by the offspring of the convicts, and that is where suspicious space scientist Dibs (Binoche) comes in. She is dedicated to reproduction, but due to radiation and a host of other problems, it is not going well.
I cannot think of, and prefer not to think of, a bodily fluid that does not get a chance in the spotlight in “High Life.” For a film set in space, it is extremely “earthy.” But of course that is the point: The deeply flawed society in the ship is a microcosm of the one they left behind. Monte’s dilemma is both unusual and universal. He asks himself, why bother to go on living when you are literally hurtling toward a black hole? And arguably, aren’t we all?
The baby makes the question that much more urgent. Most of the crew members grapple with questions of suicide and we know at the beginning of the film that Monte and Willow are the only surviving crew members. It is incredibly touching to watch Monte teaching Willow to walk; he keeps going, even when it is clear they will not return to Earth. It is an immense struggle that is fascinating to watch, and Monte gently says to the unaware baby that it would be so easy to just drown her like a kitten before ending his own life.
Action switches between Monte’s almost silent contemplation of the void and flashbacks that slowly unveil the truths of the lives of the prisoners and their doctor on board. It’s very disturbing, but utterly compelling. There is also a great deal of space copulation, in varying configurations, underscoring the themes of reproduction at the heart of a film that does have the word “life” in the title.
Pattinson is riveting as Monte, including during the many lengthy shots of him shaving his rather amazing face. As he says, the crew adopted rituals like hygiene to keep themselves sane, even as the pointlessness of any activity becomes more evident. Pattinson has transcended his cheesy vampire roots into a really interesting actor, so enjoy him before he dives into another gigantic franchise. (He’s scheduled to take on the role of Batman next year.)
No one could accuse “High Life” of subtlety; it is an operatically perverse, stylized metaphor for the human condition, set in outer space. It looks realistic, with a believably shabby spacecraft, while the premise is outrageous, and it really achieves an affecting balance. It’s an interesting, disturbing film and it is not for everyone. This is not “The Right Stuff.” Do not watch it with a parent. I have warned you about the bodily fluids.
“High Life” is currently available to rent/stream.
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