Trapped in a tin can travelling at ninety-nine per cent of the speed of light, the lives of those aboard are arrested from both the perspective of an external observer and from their own helpless point of view, prisoners whose life sentences have been commuted in favour of the high life, a one-way mission to a black hole.
Communications with Earth broken, their vessel barely equipped and breaking down much as the social structure already has, their nominal goal to extract energy from the target black hole with no explanation proposed as to how this incomprehensibly vast energy will be harnessed or transferred back home where time is passing ten times faster for those left behind.
So it is that the futile breeding experiments of Doctor Dibs (Godzilla’s Juliette Binoche) have taken precedence, manipulating and violating the younger of her charges such as Boyse (Suspiria’s Mia Goth) while the nominally-in-charge Captain Chandra (Personal Shopper‘s Lars Eidinger) turns a blind eye, the radiation which has prevented successful reproduction having caused him to develop leukaemia.
And through it all, lost in time and his lonely thoughts, between monotone, melancholy utterances, Monte (Twilight‘s Robert Pattinson) shuffles through the rough-finished beige corridors with no distraction other than maintenance tasks and tending the gardens.
The English language debut of veteran French director Claire Denis from a script co-written with her long-time collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, High Life has been developing in her mind for fifteen years, a period during which it is apparent that the more abstract ideas took precedence over anything orbiting a comprehensible narrative.
As a thought experiment considering the long-term effects of enclosed isolation with no hope of reprieve, High Life takes it to an extreme beyond even Doctor Dibs’ unethical obsession; with no feasible goal, what is the purpose of these experiments? It is not an economic way to deal with an excess prison population, nor do these dehumanised emulations of characters engender sympathy which might make the audience question parallel actions in a real environment.
With death a ubiquitous presence among the dwindling crew, the frequent dialogue-free sequences are more reminiscent of a particularly grim expedition to Solaris rather than 2001: A Space Odyssey, but like the theoretical approach to a black hole the closer the film draws to its conclusion the slower it seems to move.
Like that other recently fêted product of French cinema Raw, High Life presumes a buy-in from the audience which is unsupported by what is offered in return, grubby visuals influenced by The Fountain and Interstellar but without the budget or vision and understated performances of lifeless dialogue where cold void masquerades as profundity.