“High Life” would appear to be, at first glance, your typical space thriller — a bunch of people get sent up to space, slowly start going mad, begin to kill each other and there may be an alien threat. Under the hand of renowned director Claire Denis, we’re instead treated to a dense, bold sci-fi film in the category of “Solaris” or “Annihilation.” The director of “Beau Travail,” “35 Shots of Rum” and “White Material” makes her first English-language feature, and the result is nothing short of masterful.
Robert Pattinson, continuing his run as an arthouse darling, stars as Monte, a death row inmate sent to live in a space station traveling towards a black hole. Our first introduction to him is as he’s fixing the station on the outside, desperately trying to calm the crying baby that’s his only companion on the shuttle. We learn soon after that the rest of the crew is dead, their bodies jettisoned out of the shuttle as the title splashes across the screen. Who are they, and what happened to them forms a fractured, anachronistic narrative that can feel a bit confusing at first.
The two most prominent characters of the crew are Boyse and Tcherny, played by Mia Goth and Andre Benjamin (better known as Andre 3000,) respectively. Along with them, there’s Juliette Binoche, playing Dibs, a doctor obsessed with reproduction. She effectively runs the entire ship, soliciting samples from the male crew to try and impregnate the female members. Monte notably refuses, which only makes her more fascinated with him. The crew gives great performances, Pattison underplaying to great effect while Binoche lets her freak flag fly, so to speak.
The real star is Denis, whose steady command as a director can be felt over every minute of the runtime. She keeps the tone foreboding, infusing it with a heavy aura of sex that’s drained of any titillation. One particular scene involving Binoche in what’s become known as the F—box is the most erotically terrifying thing you’ll ever see.
To these prisoners, sex is animalistic, nearly compulsive, reduced to the barest of states. “High Life” is fascinated by fluids: blood, urine, semen, the things that signify life, but it never feels puerile so much as deeply analytical.
At times, it can feel too analytical, as if she has so much to say and wants you to figure it all out. Moment to moment, however, there’s nothing like it; it’s a film that begs to be analyzed and slowly unraveled. To some, it may be too slow. There’s a lot of scenes that feel like nothing’s happening. To those willing to get on its wavelength, you won’t find another “adult” sci-fi film this year that feels like such a visceral experience. More than anything, “High Life” feels like watching a master at work.