“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.