High Life is not for the faint-hearted. If Alien shocked audiences by playing on our primordial fears of other beings peculiar sexual habits and 2001: A Space Odyssey found a logical reason for our existence using cold, hard science, then High Life finds a middle path between the two. There is no apex predator or psychotic computer to contend with, just a ship slowly orbiting a black hole trying to see if the Penrose process—a way of extracting energy from a black hole—works, whilst the crew are subjected to degrading fertility tests. Although the brown-tinged colour scheme and claustrophobic sets hark back to ’70s sci-fi film classics like Solaris or Dark Star, the taboo-breaking nature of the characters feels more akin to the psychological horror of Driller Killer.
High Life shares horror’s instinct for revulsion, and although there is some blood and guts on display—Boyse literally coughs up her insides as her craft falls into a black hole—it’s the explicit use of natural body fluids that will really make your stomach churn: the milky, white discharge that leaks from the box where crew members vent their sexual frustrations; a distraught Boyse smearing herself in her own breast milk; Dr Dibs (played with wild-eyed abandon by Juliette Binoche) cupping a sperm sample in her hands like gold she has sieved from a river. Through all this, director Clare Denis is careful to find the right balance between trying to surprise the audience without being provocative just for shock value: adding surreal touches to soften the impact. The scene with Dr Dibs pleasuring herself in the box is the best example of this approach: it’s scored and edited like a slasher film with an ominous drone underneath, squelching noises, high angled close-ups and rhythmic editing. When Dr Dibs goes into ecstatic raptures, she looks like a William Blake painting come to life: her muscles tensing as if another being is about to leap out of her body. It’s hard to be offended when the artistry involved is so visually and sonically arresting.
For all the extreme behaviours on display, High Life has greater ambitions than just trying to make the audience squirm in their seat. The films explores a number of ethical dilemmas, none of which are resolved with cheap theatrics or platitudes.
The first dilemma involves the ethics of human testing. The crew, made up of death row prisoners, sign up willingly, but after a few years in space realise they have been tricked into joining a one-way trip. They are unable to rebel, because if they don’t comply with the tests then the drugs needed to feed their addictions will stop, and if no test results are recorded then the ship cuts off the life support. These cruel experiments serve no higher purpose, because as the black hole warps time and space, it prevents the signal getting back to Earth in a timely fashion. The closer they get to the hole, the longer each signal takes to get home, so the next time their results are received the human race would most likely be extinct. Events become more tragic when the artificial insemination works and babies are successfully delivered, as the babies die soon after because of the background radiation. It’s a situation that is pure Kafka: the tests that keep the crew alive are also causing unnecessary suffering to others. The film is not anti-science—the film is rigorous about being as scientifically accurate as possible—but if no-one can benefit from the outcome of these experiments, than they aren’t for science, just cruelty for cruelty’s sake.
Another dilemma is whether we can rehabilitate criminals who have committed the most morally reprehensible crimes. With the exception of Tcherny, who joined the mission to make his wife proud, everyone else seems resigned to the fact they are scum. Monte refers to himself and his shipmates as “the refuse that didn’t fit into the system”—essentially unrecycled sh*t. They are considered so dispensable that scientists only contemplated sending a ship with dogs on it after the prisoners were off-planet and out of mind—like a ship of industrial waste that nobody wants dumped in their backyard.
Three years of living in this pressure cooker environment has worn down any sense of social pleasantries or decency these characters had. The exception to this is Monte—played by an ashen-faced Robert Pattinson—who has taken up abstinence and refuses to give sperm samples or use the box. He watches the unfolding events with a sense of moral superiority but he is aware of his own hypocrisy. Telling his baby daughter as he flushes away her potty into the water recycling system:
“Don’t drink your own piss Willow. Don’t eat your own sh*t. Even if it’s recycled. Even if it doesn’t look like piss or sh*t anymore. It’s called a taboo.”
This one-sided conversation sets the tone for the film, where the natural order of things is upended at every turn: young Monte murdering his best friend after she kills his dog; Dr Dibs’ rape of the sedated Monte and her use of his semen to inseminate Boyse whilst she’s asleep; a despairing Monte openly contemplating a joint suicide bid by drowning Willow. Ideas of gender-appropriate behaviour and civility are luxuries which the crew have had to live without. Monte can openly slap Boyse for carving the world ‘swell’ onto the wall and she will smile back at him. Not because she is under the thumb, but because being reprimanded for bad behaviour feels like a kindness in such a harsh environment. For all Monte’s best efforts, like the recycled water he is forced to drink to survive, he is incapable of fully separating himself from the toxic atmosphere on the ship.
For all the toxic behaviour on show, the film doesn’t soft pedal the fact that these are death row inmates with a vicious streak. Ettore is the most violent: raping Boyse and punching a tied up Mink repeatedly in the face. On the flipside, we also see him masturbating in his trousers and calling Dr Dib “a cock-block” so he’s also depicted as repressed and pathetic. Dr Dibs’ murder of her own children is perhaps the greatest taboo. Her attitude to her crimes changes throughout the film: at times she revels in her notoriety in front of the rest of the crew, whilst other times she borders on tears. Her unnatural, writhing body when she is reaching climax in the box suggests that for all her strutting about, she has some demons she needs to exorcise. The eventual fate of these characters brings no emotional catharsis, partly because the bulk of the film is in flashback so the audience already knows the outcome, but also because they are all to a certain extent victims of circumstances that are out of their control: being stuck in the orbit of a black hole from which they can’t escape.
Monte’s attitude towards his crew is symptomatic of his deification of animals; the close bond he had with his dog in his youth clearly being the most important relationship he has ever had. He considers himself “raised by my dog” and attributes animal characteristics to the people and things most important to him. Inputting results into the ship computer is referred to as feeding the dog, he flatters Dr Dibs by calling her “foxy” and considers it a complement to describe Willow’s teeth as “rat-like”. However, his worldview of benevolent, caring animals is shaken to the core when on boarding a ship populated only by dogs he finds the animals have started to eat each other. On his return, Willow questions him about why he didn’t bring back a dog. He snaps, “What do you know about cruelty?” His anger coming from the realisation that innocence is a quality we project onto animals, rather than something innate about them. The film also expects us to extend this idea to the crew, and whether evil is what we are projecting onto them rather than something they are born with.
The film is bookended by scenes of Monte raising Willow as a single parent. These help ground the film in a tangible reality for which any home-working or single parent can relate: Monte’s dropping his spanner into outer space when he is distracted by Willow’s baby screams; talking to your baby as an adult just for the sake of company; the desperate pleading for them to stop crying, “because it’s gonna kill me”. Structuring the film this way frames Monte not just as a father but as a representative of humanity itself; taking sole responsibility for a child he did not consent to but must look after anyway. High Life invites us to consider whether we should look after criminals the same way we would unwanted children.
This structure also allows us to follow Willow’s character arc as she grows up in this restricted environment. Like the Penrose process which extracts energy from a destructive source, Willow finds hope in the bleakest of circumstances. She is naturally curious: praying purely because she wants to know that it feels like, and believing there is something on the other side of the black hole. The latter idea is planted in her head by seeing old footage of a Native American dancing around a sacred fire, a ritual which is intended to create a spiritual doorway. This is why at the film’s climax, when she convinces Monte to pilot a ship straight into the black hole, it’s a sign of hope rather than bleak resignation. When Monte describes Willow as looking unique, it’s not just the words of a proud father but also recognition that something beautiful really can come out of drinking and eating your own recycled piss and sh*t.
In print High Life may look like a gruelling slog, and it certainly doesn’t hold back in confronting our most base desires, however for all its excesses it’s ultimately a touching story about a father and daughter trying to survive. Like many parents, Monte is irrevocably changed when he becomes a parent, moving from cynicism to hope as he sees the universe anew through her eyes. The ship becomes a microcosm of society and how we treat those who break society’s rules, as if we don’t address the underlying problem, then we will end up repeating the same mistakes, like a ship stuck in orbit around a black hole. And ultimately it’s the children who suffer the most.