The title High Life suggests a stoner film, but it's actually a downer joke. From veteran French cowriter-director Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum), this existential sci-fi flick opens with a mumbly fellow named Monte (Robert Pattinson) alone on a spaceship with an infant. From our earthbound perspective, his life is "high" indeed.
But the phrase is also a bitter irony. We soon learn that Monte is a death-row convict who's probably not intended to survive his mission. In the first few scenes, he tosses the corpses of his crewmates and fellow prisoners out the airlock. As for the baby he cares for, the whole history of movies has taught us to see her as an emblem of hope in the darkest circumstances. But is she? Flashing back to show us how the child came to be and what happened to the crew, Denis' alternately frustrating and fascinating film offers no easy answers.
Initially, the narrative of High Life is deliberately disorienting, its characters opaque. Jarring flashbacks to Earth feed us awkward exposition and scraps of unhelpful backstory. These alternate with scenes of Monte's deadening routine on a spaceship whose exterior looks like a hipster shoebox and whose interior looks like a prison.
Then the flashbacks show us what happened to the crew (which includes Mia Goth and André Benjamin), and a force of nature takes over the film. Juliette Binoche plays Dibs, a convict who for some inscrutable reason has been allowed to play mad scientist, striving to create new life in the spaceship's punishing environment. Collecting "genetic material" from the men and inseminating the women, she's both a stern mother figure and an intensely sexual presence; one elliptically shot, weirdly poetic scene shows her using an on-board device called a "Fuck Chair." She's probably also clinically insane, which bodes well for no one.
Denis may have pulled off a bait-and-switch: High Life promises a Moon-like showcase for Pattinson, who's been drawing glowing reviews for his indie work in recent years. What it delivers, however, is more like the David Cronenberg film that Cronenberg will never make: one driven by a middle-aged woman's desires. Dibs' vision of creating life in the void eventually entails spraying the spaceship with bodily fluids of all sorts. Even after the character is gone, her operatic personality looms over the film. Monte, by contrast, is a steady, muted presence, just surviving from day to day.
High Life skips the technical accuracy in favor of a compendium of callbacks to other movies set on spaceships: the long, quiet maintenance sessions of 2001: A Space Oddity; the grubbiness of Alien; the flourishing garden oasis of 2007's Sunshine. It explains very little: The spaceship's mission is to "harvest the energy" of a black hole, but how and for whom? Images from old Earth media flicker on the computer monitors, soothing or scaring the baby, but who chose them, and why?
Denis seems less interested in literal space flight than in everything it represents: escape from a dying Earth, survival, rebirth and — on the flip side — stifling, tomb-like confinement. Is Dibs' project of engineering a space baby based on hope, or on sadism? Is a life spent in a floating coffin-shoebox aimed at a black hole better than no life at all? High Life is filled with eerie, indelible images of disposal and dissolution: a man vanishing into the soil, a severed heart sliding into the trash. We're left to decide whether the surrender to entropy is inevitable, or whether dogged endurance is worth the effort.