A group of criminals face an inhumane cosmic fate in “High Life.” French director Claire Denis’ first English film, released April 12, tackles questions of morality and human rights through the lens of death row inmates.
Monte (Robert Pattinson) is among several criminals who chose a space mission seeking alternative energy from a black hole instead of life in prison. Onboard, the crew is headed by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), whose space operation is a twisted, abusive experiment.
The inmates can’t have sex with each other and can only resolve their sexual frustrations solo in “The Box,” a room where a normal human activity becomes cold and clinical. Dibs is hell-bent on making a baby through artificial insemination and subjects inmates to her attempts.
In one graphic scene, the doctor rapes Monte while he’s unconscious, and he becomes the father of a baby named Willow.
The moments leading up to the present, when Willow (Jessie Ross) is a teen, are presented as flashbacks.
The movie’s ending is unclear, but that doesn’t matter. “High Life” is a meditation on humanity and dealing with circumstances pushing the limits of sanity.
“High Life” parallels Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” (2014), a science fiction movie focusing on a father-daughter relationship. In “Interstellar,” a man’s space mission to a new planet is guided with the help of his daughter. Likewise, the father-daughter bond helps keep Monte and Willow sane.
This is where Pattinson’s acting shines. Monte has to raise a daughter in the worst possible environment, yet he’s still a tender, loving parent.
He’s as emotionally dependent on Willow as she’s physically dependent on him. This is evident in the first five minutes of the movie when Monte quickly attends to his baby’s cries, even after discarding inmates’ dead bodies off ship.
Viewers who haven’t taken the former “Twilight” heartthrob seriously as an actor should start paying attention to him after seeing “High Life.” His emotional performance forces audiences to ponder Denis’ hard quandaries on ethics.
The movie questions how criminals should be treated. Monte isn’t a violent serial killer, and neither is Dibs — the other inmates’ backgrounds are unclear.
Regardless, viewers are inclined to be sympathetic to the inmates. No one deserves to be subjected to sexual abuse and a brutal, uncertain death.
The only thing the movie would have benefitted from is time. At an hour and 40 minutes long, audiences don’t learn much about the characters and how they landed in jail to begin with. Viewers don’t get to see how a pregnancy is sustained in space or how Monte raises Willow to be a well-adjusted teen in an unorthodox environment.
“High Life” is a tense movie, and scenes convey this as much as the dialogue. Up close shots of inmates’ bodies — and their fluids — are uncomfortable to look at. Many scenes are tinted with a blue or red hue, creating a gloomy and chilling atmosphere. At the end, the scene is washed in yellow.
“High Life,” rated R, is in theaters nationwide.