Monte is the sole survivor of a crew onboard a space vessel that has long since left the Solar System. The only other contact he has with another form of human life is a baby he named Willow. His crew was a group of death row inmates sent to find a source of alternative energy in the far reaches of space. Their goal is to extract energy from a black hole. As Monte disposes of the corpses, he reflects on the events that brought him here.
High Life is a film that provides a deep examination of ethics in science as well as the human condition. Monte himself is guilty of having killed his friend over a dog as a child, and now he and several other criminals are on board a vessel that is light years away from Earth. There is no possible way for them to quickly contact those who set up the mission in the first place. They are completely on their own and far removed from society. In a lot of ways, the crew of this vessel ends up in a situation similar to that of The Lord of the Flies. Then again, considering that many of them are guilty of particularly violent crimes, they do manage to be surprisingly civil up until things inevitably go wrong. In fact, the first person to die does so because of a stroke caused by the increase in radiation as the ship nears the black hole rather than as a result of any malicious intent.
Because of the profound implications of what would happen in such a situation, sexual activity is strictly prohibited. Any sexual urges of the crew are dealt with using a device called “The Box”. Monte is the only one who refrains from using it, being entirely celibate. This would seem especially odd given that he clearly has a child in the opening scenes. As a result, a majority of this film’s underlying mystery is discovering exactly what led to him conceiving a child with one of the other prisoners. The answer to this mystery revolves around the one taking charge of the mission: Dr. Dibs.
Though she is stated to have committed heinous crimes on Earth as well, Dibs quickly demonstrates what happens when a scientist proceeds without any kind of ethical code. She treats the other prisoners as nothing more than guinea pigs for her experiments. While everyone else adheres to a strict schedule complemented by the sedatives the doctor regularly administers, Dibs roams the vessel freely. She is particularly obsessed with the idea of artificial insemination and is thus frustrated by Monte’s constant rejections of her advances. A stroke of good fortune for her arrives when one prisoner attempts to rape another. Monte fends off the would-be rapist, and Dibs uses this as an excuse to double the amount of sedatives they receive. She then takes advantage of this by raping Monte and subsequently injecting his effluence into the woman who barely avoided the fate herself. The woman is able to produce a healthy child with Monte initially none the wiser.
The primary theme of this film revolves around the concept of recycling. This is the most obvious in how the ship recycles waste products in order to sustain a garden so that those onboard can survive indefinitely. However, the prisoners are the ones truly being recycled. They are the misfits society has deemed useless, so they are given a chance to aid science to prove their worth. Though it would seem merciful that scientists gave them a chance to accomplish something with their condemned lives, in practice, what this crew goes through could be considered a fate worse than death. Monte’s only friend on the vessel is a man Tcherny – played by André Lauren Benjamin of Outkast fame. He is haunted by the fact that he can never see his family again, so when things take a turn for the worse, he ends up dying on his own terms. Another prisoner suffers an especially grisly death via Spaghettification as a result of traveling through a molecular cloud within the black hole. Other than Dibs, who is repeatedly shown to be untrustworthy, it’s clear the prisoners are in over their heads. It is therefore unsurprising when they begin dying one by one until the only ones left are Monte and his daughter Willow. Many years later, the two of them decide to journey through the black hole together. What becomes of them is unknown.
Although High Life is a well-shot film with a reasonably interesting premise, it does suffer from two major problems. The first concerns the film’s pacing. By 2018, A24 had gained a reputation as the anti-Hollywood. While the prevailing attitude in Hollywood led to the creation of countless films considered insipid rollercoaster rides by scholars and critics, A24 typically opted for slow burns. This was likely in an attempt to recapture an era in which films were driven by a singular artistic vision. However, there is a big difference between a director who paces their work slowly because it’s the only method they know and one attempting to mimic those sensibilities without comprehending what made them work. The result is a film that stays on certain shots far longer than necessary and pads establishing shots out mercilessly for the sake of promoting style over substance. I was surprised when I later learned High Life doesn’t even reach the two-hour mark because it felt much longer than that.
The other problem cements Claire Denis’s film as a product of its time. Many contemporary works of science fiction such as Ex Machina and Upgrade were praised for their often transgressive, thought-provoking themes. However, in practice, they came across as highly anti-intellectual. Those striving for technological progress in these works were portrayed as woefully misguided at best. Otherwise, they were invariably cast in an exceedingly negative light – if not depicted as flat-out evil. High Life is no exception to this trend. The most scientifically driven character in the story is the closest thing it has to an antagonist, and the organization that commissioned the program in the first place doesn’t get presented flatteringly either with its members being dispassionate and callous. While a story isn’t automatically anti-intellectual by having smart antagonists, it takes a level of nuance many filmmakers at the time simply didn’t possess – or may have once possessed, but forewent for the sake of conforming to the sensibilities of its day.
When it comes to science fiction, High Life is doubtlessly a product of the late 2010s. It is ultimately more interested in examining the human condition than exercising the kind of imagination that led to the creation of classic science fiction films such as Alien, Star Wars, or Blade Runner. It does manage to rise above some of the worst predilections of its scene and deliver an experience that, while not innovative, at least wears its ambition on its sleeves. Nonetheless, High Life is a film made for fans of this era of science fiction. If you dislike the general attitude of independent science fiction from this time, you will not get anything out of it. While Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche are easily charismatic enough to carry the story to the end, you have to put up with the fact that it is a very unapologetically anti-Hollywood feature. Some may love it for that, but I personally feel the often glacial pacing and anti-intellectual nature of its narrative make High Life a difficult sell.
Final Score: 5/10