Though she had made a horror movie, Trouble Every Day, there was something of a ripple of incredulity that French writer-director Claire Denis should want to make a science fiction film … and not one of those politically relevant dystopian editorials filmmakers from Truffaut on have been comfortable with, but something set in outer space with rockets and astronaut suits and black holes. Of course, the far reaches of the universe have called such austere auteurs as Kubrick and Tarkovsky, and a spaceship is an ultimate bottle show device, cooping up characters who can be observed with forensic precision, affording the sort of hothouse space that would make a decent stage play but with a vast void outside the walls to provide cinematic scope.
High Life – which Denis co-wrote with Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox (plus a consultant gig for Nick Laird and a few other perhaps-writers embedded somewhere in the credits crawl) – doesn’t much refer to other filmed s-f, though a spaceship’s garden might evoke Silent Running, the man-alone business evokes Moon (and even The Martian), and an earthly flashback involving a train might mirror-image s bit from The Man Who Fell to Earth. However, it boils down to a story not unlike the Ten Little Indians-in-Space format of Alien with with angst-inducing ellipses (including one that allows a baby to grow to young womanhood) instead of a suspenseful ticking clock. It opens with Monte (Robert Pattinson) going EVA from an oblong ship to fix a doodad, while trying to calm a crying baby over a radio-link. It’s a pointed juxtaposition of the high-tech and the domestic, and also unsettling as the spaceman can’t concentrate on either job and muffs both of them. Then, in jumbled flashbacks, we come to see how the crew of this ship – which has a number, not a name – dwindled to the two survivors, and lurch forward late in the film to find Monte and his grown daughter Willow (Jessie Ross) nearing their mysterious destination.
The crew are mostly petty criminals undergoing a presumably one-way trip to avoid prison – and even Dr Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the scientist in charge, is a convicted murderess – and the mission has something vague to do with testing the process of reproduction in space (sperm is harvested and women inseminated) but also visiting black holes. Also aboard are a range of misfits who could be the cast of a next-gen Alien remake, and might have drawn lots for character names that don’t jibe with their ethnicities – Tcherny (Andre Benjamin), Boyse (Mia Goth), Chandra (Lars Eidinger), Nansen (Agata Buzek), Mink (Claire Tran), Ettore (Ewan Mitchell), Elektra (Gloria Obianyo) – but we know from the outset that they’re all going to end up frozen in bodybags and dumped into space to lighten the load. As initially testy relationships break down, and people are lost to the stresses of the voyage, the film focuses on small tasks, with a couple of failsafes – a report has to be made every day to keep life support going – proving a hindrance.
In the end, the crux is Monte’s changing relationship with a daughter who only knows other people from a few random film clips – they might almost be an origin story for Morbius and Altaira from Forbidden Planet. Like the space travel films of the 1950s and ‘60s – especially those from the Eastern Bloc (effects work was done in Poland) – it has a believable, nuts-and-bolts feel (the tech is practical and cheap) and a crew representing all nations … but this allows a sense of doom and despair to take over, before a lo-fi ‘beyond the infinite’ finale.