“At 99 percent of the speed of light, the entire sky converged before our eyes,” intones Monte (played by Robert Pattinson), one of the lonely sailors aboard a mysterious starship, early on in Claire Denis’s new film, High Life. “The sensation of moving backwards even though we’re moving forwards, getting further from what’s getting nearer. Sometimes I just can’t stand it.” He’s one of several prisoners huddled aboard a brick-shaped vessel, zooming toward a black hole to carry out an energy experiment that will result in their certain death. Denis’s film confronts that funereal irony with her characteristic bleak wit and sense of invention. Monte’s mission is utterly futuristic, but the circumstances in which his crewmates find themselves are familiar—they’re going forward and backward simultaneously, making great progress for humanity at great moral cost.
Throughout her directing career, Denis has reveled in the intimacy and skin-crawling horror that can bubble up when bodies are thrown together in some unusual context—whether that’s the Djibouti outpost where lustful soldiers clash in her masterpiece Beau Travail, or the Parisian dating scene, as in last year’s Let the Sunshine In. High Life follows that format, taking a bunch of nervy convicts and cramming them into a cold, clinical environment to be both physically and emotionally tested. But the film is also a surprising departure for Denis in a number of ways: It’s her first science-fiction movie, it’s entirely in English, and it’s her first collaboration with Pattinson, a marquee idol who has transformed into one of art cinema’s most exciting presences in recent years.
High Life is a nebulous, sometimes gory, and other times strangely lurid experience, light-years away from the stately, epic tone of sci-fi classics such as 2001. Denis is working with a smaller budget and a limited number of sets, but her film is still suffused with the awe-inspiring mixture of dread and calm that only outer space can conjure. There’s nary an action scene or a death-defying set piece, but the bizarre situation unfolding aboard Monte’s unnamed vessel is chilling enough to make the viewer question the value of life. The prisoners are staring down the inscrutable void of a black hole, and as the film progresses, they start to reflect that existential terror in all kinds of fascinating, and sometimes even hopeful, ways.
Monte and his companions—who include the gardener Tcherny (André Benjamin), the passionate Boyse (Mia Goth), and the sociopathic Ettore (Ewan Mitchell)—are all outcasts from society, their lives deemed disposable when weighed against a world-saving mission. High Life’s fragmented screenplay (written by Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, and Geoff Cox) gradually reveals the characters’ backstories as it cuts between various timelines. Much of the movie’s early portion, however, focuses on Monte and the infant girl he’s raising, named Willow—both of whom, it’s revealed, are the last surviving prisoners. As the pair stumbles around the deteriorating craft, Denis fills the soundtrack with the wrenching sound of the baby’s crying, until Monte finally begs Willow to stop before he loses it. Later on in the film, as the details of the child’s birth unravel, it becomes clear that Denis is telling a story about love being stretched to its absolute limits.
The few glimpses Denis allows of Earth are drearily industrial, while the ship itself, designed by the artist Ólafur Eliasson, is more of a gilded cage: a smooth-looking series of boxes, grilles, and panels that are almost oppressively free of personality. The prisoners are subjected to nightmarish experiments by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a fertility specialist who is trying, and failing, to create new life in the most hostile of environments. Binoche plays Dibs as a sort of cosmic witch; she sports an impressive tangle of jet-black hair and has all kinds of surgical torture devices at her disposal (including a chamber called a “Fuck Box” that’s exactly as visceral as it sounds). But really, she’s a soul as tormented as everyone else on the ship—someone wrestling with the possibility that humanity, as an ongoing endeavor, might be doomed.
That’s the grim undercurrent boiling away in many a Denis film, but particularly here, as befitting a tale that speculates on the end of the world. Yet even as the situation aboard the ship gets stranger and tenser, High Life keeps cutting ahead to that eerie coda of Monte and his daughter, alone together, barreling toward unavoidable death but inextricably bonded. For all its body horrors and apocalyptic conclusions, High Life is one of Denis’s most loving and tender creations.