“Break the laws of nature, and you’ll pay for it,” says Monte (Robert Pattinson) in Claire Denis’s space horror High Life. Monte should know. He’s spent years on a spaceship traveling toward a black hole, alongside other criminals who were promised a second chance if they signed up for this mission. A second chance at what, though? Is this really a life?
The group of men and women exercise, running around the spaceship until they are dripping in sweat. They grow their own produce in a garden on the spaceship’s lower level, harvesting it for their meals. They watch monitors that cycle video footage and images, allegedly beamed to them from Earth. Every 24 hours they send a message back to someone on their home planet, who gives them the go-ahead to continue their mission, who re-ups their life-saving protocols, who ensures they survive for another day. It’s a tedious process, like a hamster stuck on a wheel, like a wild animal stuck in a cage. Are humans supposed to endure like this? Could anyone? Anything?
High Life follows in the tradition of space horrors like Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and the groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey (and, to a certain degree, the David storyline in the later Alien films, like Prometheus and Covenant) in its questioning of what makes the human experience, what components are required of it, what makes a life. There are no easy answers. Denis is so frank in her exploration of humanity—it boils down to violence and sex, basically—but so effectively bizarre in her execution that nearly every sequence has a dreamlike quality, the edge of a nightmare, the surreal feel of a night terror. Are we anything more than our bodies? Than our genitalia? Than the blood pumping through our veins? Does it matter?
Every paragraph I’ve written so far has ended with a series of questions because, well, High Life is kind of bonkers! When I saw it in Baltimore, there were three other people in the theater, and two of them grilled me about what happened in the movie when we wandered out into the lobby together! Shit is strange, even if you’re paying attention! So let me wade back into narrative to give you a greater sense of what is going on in High Life, to help elucidate what I think the film is saying about the vulgarity and meaninglessness of life and the possibility of reinvention.
High Life doesn’t play out linearly; we begin at a sort of middle point and move backward and forward, with split-second flashbacks and flashforwards every so often. When we meet Monte, he is responsible for a clingy, often-screaming toddler, Willow (Scarlette Lindsey). “She’s mine. I’m hers,” Monte says, as he cooks for her, feeds her, bathes her, does everything for her. The ship is in increasing disarray around them, but he holds tight to the child, giving her nearly all his attention.
We then jump back in time: Monte was a member of the ship’s original crew, all death-row inmates, who were recruited to be human subjects for Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche, sensual and horrifying). The group is half men, half women: The former includes Monte, the threatening Ettore (the Bo Burnham lookalike Ewan Mitchell), and the older, more weary Tcherny (André Benjamin), who left a wife and child behind; the latter includes Boyse (Mia Goth), who constantly challenges Dr. Dibs, the confrontational Nansen (Agata Buzek), and the trigger-tempered Elektra (Gloria Obianyo) and Mink (Claire Tran). All offenders, all seen by the justice system as unworthy of redemption, all signed up to be Dr. Dibs’s guinea pigs in her quest to create a child through artificial insemination and raise it in space.
The prisoners aren’t allowed to have sex with each other, and friendships are discouraged, and Dr. Dibs is always watching them. The only place to seemingly get any privacy is the Box, which is certainly more aptly referred to as the Fuck Box, an inexplicable area of the ship that somehow provides an experience that is anything you want sexually. Bodily fluids, semen and vaginal secretions, are removed from the Fuck Box with a series of pipes that dump them outside the chamber, spilling them on the floor in a messy puddle. An orgasm as something to be regulated; sexual desire as something to be controlled. Dr. Dibs goes wild in there—we see her undress, undo her long hair, and writhe around a pommel that suddenly transforms into a fur-covered being with a lengthy tail that caresses her—and none of it makes any sense. The feeling is real but the mechanisms that support it are not; the sense of completion is genuine, but the sexual fulfillment serves no purpose. The tension still exists on the ship, simmering like a kettle about to boil over, like a geyser about to explode, like a tornado whipping everything untethered, leaving destruction as a reminder it was there.
Everything goes to shit in High Life. Dr. Dibs’s entire scientific project revolves around abuse, the idea of your body as not your own, as human life as a utilitarian effort instead of a personal one. What can your body carry inside of it? What parts does it provide? She invites the male crew members to masturbate in her office in exchange for drugs; she straps the female crew members down and injects them with semen. If they try to douche it out, she calls them “amateurs”; when the women die, she does not grieve. The possibility of new life is her only focus. She has a sexual relationship with the ship’s captain, who begs her to “suck my dick” during his final moments of life; she refuses to acquiesce. Always in power, always in control. She sedates them, she rapes them, and she throws them away.
How to survive in a place so grotesque? Most of the crew members don’t. Ettore tries to rape Boyse; Monte and other crew members jump in to defend her and Mink stabs him in the eye, killing him. Elektra dies from radiation after becoming pregnant. Nansen, the pilot, is murdered by Boyse, who takes her place in a pod that is attempting to pass through a black hole; she’s sucked inside and her body explodes inside its spacesuit. Tcherny buries himself in the ship’s garden, suffocating himself. Mink attacks Dr. Dibs and is then killed by Monte, who feels a strange affinity for the doctor, unaware of everything she’s done. Dr. Dibs intentionally steps out of a doorway and into space, her body seemingly falling downward forever, frozen solid in the eternal expanse. Her experiment over, her desire for life snuffed out with her own death.
And so it is just Monte and Willow on the ship. Years pass. Teenage Willow (Jessie Ross) always wants to be close to him, sleeping with Monte in the same bunk where Dr. Dibs raped him and gathered the semen that would produce her. She knows little about her mother Boyse, the woman whose breasts poured milk after she gave birth, who cried when Dr. Dibs wouldn’t let her around the baby who would be Willow. The human body, all of its resources laid bare, its functionality turned grotesque. You want to talk body horror? High Life is nonstop body horror, with Denis approaching nearly property of the human body as something unfathomable, something potentially repulsive, something ugly. The jarring nature of seeing the evidence of Willow’s first period. Semen sliding down Dr. Dibs’s thighs. The blood gushing from Ettore’s eye. Every one of them “refuse that didn’t fit into the system,” trash, waste, not very different from the dogs Monte comes across in another spaceship that passes by theirs—dogs who stayed alive by eating each other, by tearing each other apart, by eating familiar flesh.
… And yet. And yet, High Life provides glimpses of humanity among all this monstrosity, too. Baby Willow sitting in the garden, eating plants that Monte tests first. Boyse dancing toward Monte in her spacesuit; Monte later imagines the left glove of her spacesuit beckoning him, floating alone, the body it was once attached to gone. Monte and Willow finally deciding to travel into a black hole together, boarding an escape pod, trying to make it through something that could destroy them. The way they turn toward each other; the way Monte takes his daughter’s hand. Instances that demonstrate the human experience is more than just what our bodies secrete and discharge. Moments of hope in an overwhelming onslaught of despair. Connections that linger behind after people disappear, that haunt us like ghosts.
“I can’t do this space shit no more,” Tcherny says, before the man who joined this mission to provide for his family decides to give it all up. He already saw Elektra, the crew’s only other black member, die first. He’s watched as Dr. Dibs time and time again disregards their lives in pursuit of her perfect one, using them as incubators, mourning only when the fetuses are unable to survive—not caring about the others already in her care. And so he takes himself into the garden, the only place that reminds him of Earth, and he lies down, and he wills himself toward death. Tcherny chooses how he wants to die, just as Monte chooses how he wants to live, as a father for Willow and a guardian of the mission Dr. Dibs left behind. Years later, we see that the place where Tcherny died is covered in moss and plant life, only a corner of a shoe poking out from underneath the growth. His sacrifice providing for renewal, for the verdant existence he himself never got.
In addition to that moment in the garden, Denis strings together a series of alternately gorgeous and horrifying images that simultaneously communicate the smallness of our lives and the vastness of the universe. What is the final message of High Life? Maybe it’s this: That empathy can be found even in those we judge irredeemable; that affection can grow in the most decrepit of conditions; that the possibility of death also confirms the existence of life. High Life is a new classic in the space horror genre, a cinematic experience that doesn’t sugarcoat the overwhelming savagery of our existence but still considers the few moments that propel it past brutality and into something closer to love.
High Life is currently playing in limited release around the U.S.
Image sources (in order of posting): YouTube/High Life, YouTube/High Life, YouTube/High Life, YouTube/High Life