In space, no one can hear you scream. Unless you’re a baby, and you’re in High Life.
A squalling infant is the first thing you hear in High Life, and one of the first things you see — sitting in her jerry-built crib aboard a spaceship where, outside, an astronaut (Robert Pattinson) is performing repairs on the hull.
Once back onboard, he cares for the little baby with impressive paternal devotion. Some of this may be by necessity — and as this sequence plays out, we gradually realize they are on this vessel alone.
Who are they?
How did they get there?
Where are they headed?
All answered in due time via a series of flashbacks, which fill in the blanks and flesh out a movie that has director Claire Denis putting her own freaky stamp on the deep-space genre — High Life has the trippy profundity of 2001, the human treachery of Aliens, and it also includes an Orgasmatron.
That, you may recall, was a the device that turned up in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, a movie that mused about a time when human beings would trade messy physical interface for machine-induced pleasure — as it happens, a theme of Denis’ film. In her near-future, technology has usurped human function and taken control of desire and reproduction — to the chagrin of the microcosm of humanity represented on the ship, moving at (almost) light speed through space purportedly to measure the properties of a black hole, key to a source of energy that might heal a wounded Earth.
The mission, though, is dominated by a creepy physician portentously named Dibs (Juliette Binoche) conducting her own fertility experiments on the crew — men and women (Andrew Benjamin, Mia Goth) whose recruitment makes for interesting backstory, one that is too full of spoilers to be related here.
Though the young men and women are fit and attractive, and there is the opportunity to let nature take its course, radiation makes conception and gestation perilous, and Dr. Dibs has reduced mating to a joyless process of donation and insemination.
Crew members work off sexual tension in the chamber of orgasms, a process that Dibs enjoys more than anyone, and there is a long and graphic sequence of Binoche working off nervous energy, a scene that makes explicit everything that was implicit about the Debra Winger’s mechanical bull sequence in Urban Cowboy.
This is entirely the work of Ms. Denis, and none of it can be blamed on the male gaze. Neither can some of the more gruesome scenes. There is an attempted rape, a murder or two, some animal cruelty, and much emphasis on the pitilessness of space. As is often the case, the vast emptiness calls attention to the insignificance of human life. Denis’ movie, though, comes around to emphasizing the miraculousness of that life. She does this by focusing on the steadfast devotion of Pattinson’s character to the infant in his care — the two of them drifting through space and time, borne along by some ill-defined mode of propulsion that might be little more than hope.
High Life. Directed by Claire Denis. Starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Mia Goth and Andrew Benjamin. Distributed by A24.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 mins.
Parents’ guide: R (disturbing sexual and violent content including sexual assault, graphic nudity, and language)