For more than 40 years, any filmmaker trying to make a science-fiction film with intellectual depth and without laser guns and bug-eyed-monsters has done so in the shadow of two atypical masterworks: Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris, which showed that life in space can be grubby and depressing, leading to soul-searching and despair, and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which challenged audiences with an abstract conclusion that suggested that pushing the boundaries of space also meant testing the limits of comprehension.
Science-fiction films from the first Star Trek feature to Gravity have nodded to those models but ultimately pulled back, opting for more conventional conclusions. Claire Denis deserves credit for pushing the narrative envelope in High Life, a grim and provocative piece of science fiction that digs deeply into both physical and moral decadence while simultaneously sticking to its abstract ideas.
We first see Monte (Robert Pattinson) living alone with his infant daughter on a box-shaped space station, making repairs and clearing away a small collection of corpses. Denis' film moves back and forth through time, leaving it to the viewer to connect the dots and figure out how he got there and what happened to his crew mates. For those who like exposition, Denis tosses in a friendly scientific expert completely unrelated to the rest of the narrative who conveniently provides all the back story you need. It is the near future, and death-row inmates have been given the chance to volunteer for a mission to the edge of a black hole. Once they're at the station, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) uses them as volunteers/experiments as she tries to create test-tube space babies.
High Life is an oddity, with elements of horror and a great deal of conventional hardware-driven science fiction, but it often seems that Denis merely wants to provoke her characters, pushing them to absurd limits of violence and sexuality. It evokes Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running, a 1972 film about ecological panic in which Bruce Dean runs a deep-space greenhouse and is more concerned about his robot companions and plants than his human co-travelers.
In its sexual tension and psychological game-playing, it also recalls Denis' own Beau Travail, which transplanted Melville's Billy Budd to a Foreign Legion post in Djibouti, where the chief officer used his power to feed his sexual obsessions. The same could be said of Binoche here, but the scope of her project pushes her erotomania into mad-scientist territory. She's playing God but doing it badly, and her commitment to her vague but clearly misguided project makes the film something of a parable about power and delusion. Although it mirrors vast space epics of the past, High Life is really a simple tale about grand ambition masking an even greater folly.