The spaceship hurtling away from Earth is staffed with men and women sprung from death row to aid in a mysterious science experiment. The once-condemned crew believe they've been given a chance to redeem themselves and do one final good deed for humanity. Only later, as their signals to Earth begin to go unanswered and their true mission comes into focus, do they realize they have in fact been condemned twice.
High Life is strange and wondrous, less a traditional sci-fi film than it is a seductive journey into the long, black night of death. For many Americans it will also be a wormhole into the work of French director Claire Denis, who's been active in cinephile circles for three decades but has never before helmed a movie entirely in English. Of course, having the hipness cred of A24 and Robert Pattinson providing the rocket fuel doesn't hurt.
A prologue that wouldn't be out of place in a Tarkovsky film shows Pattinson's human guinea pig Monte in the aftermath of something horrible, wandering alone on the deck of this rocket to nowhere, with only a mysterious baby keeping him company. It's a great hook — what the hell happened here? — shot at Denis' familiar meandering pace, proving that even lightspeed won't rush her story. It's also a mission statement. As he hurtles toward oblivion, Monte's acts of paternal care exist in a kind of vacuum. Maybe life and love are possible within a universe of infinite cruelty, and it's up to the individual to determine their worth.
Flashbacks soon fill in some of the story, though not all of it. For much of the mission Monte (minus the baby) has been in the company of several other inmates. They're all beholden to Dr. Dibs, the ship's sexpot mad scientist, played with ecstatic camp glee by Juliette Binoche. Dibs, like Dr. Frankenstein before her, is obsessed with conjuring life from nothing, and the thriving greenhouse on the ship, combined with the turkey basters she employs with surgical precision, give a clue as to what she might want from her captives ... or perhaps more specifically from Monte, whom she clearly lusts after. (Pattinson is terrific in this, playing Monte as someone who's practiced at the art of concealing his true soul from the world.) But Dibs' other subjects are less than cooperative. Some have a streak of sexual violence you might expect of the circumstances that brought them onboard, while the powder-keg Boyse (Mia Goth) simply resents the idea of becoming someone else's experiment, even with the limited options she has available to her at such a prematurely late stage of life.