There’s something the matter with this space ship. The enormous aircraft winging through outer space in High Life appears neglected and messy, as if the crew were too busy to attend to chores like cleaning and maintenance. The ship’s on-board terrarium has a wild, overgrown look behind its plastic curtain, with topsoil and vegetables spilling out of their beds. Even the outside of the craft deviates from most movies’ conceptions of sleek, aerodynamic vessels — it’s basically a huge, nondescript, gray box, like a flying dumpster with military markings, lumbering through the void on its way to a black hole.
As rundown as the space ship seems, its occupants are even grungier. Dressed in sweats and violently bickering among themselves, Monte (Robert Pattinson) and his fellow travelers give off a distinctly unruly vibe. And what’s this — a baby! There on her blanket sits an infant girl named Willow, being tended by a video screen that sounds out basic vocabulary for her benefit.
Meanwhile in another part of the ship, Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) tends to her duties as on-board physician in a subdued, languid manner, as if she’s high on meds. It suddenly occurs to us that instead of an alert, highly trained crew of military types ready for extra-terrestrial warfare with strange creatures, Dr. Dibs seems to be the only crew member on the ship, that the ship is a flying penal colony, and that Monte and the other inmates are convicts on their way to a distant planet.
Director and co-writer Denis — she wrote the screenplay with Jean-Pol Fargeau and Geoff Cox, with help from Nick Laird — is a veteran reporter from the front lines of modern discontent, in the narrative sense. In her lengthy career, the African-bred French filmmaker has delineated the hardships of colonial Cameroon (Chocolat), Foreign Legion grunts in Djibouti (Beau Travail), and immigrant life in a Paris banlieu (35 Shots of Rum). She’s probably the last director we’d expect to preside over a voyage through outer space. She does it her way.
Willow the baby, who grows up during the journey, is the offspring of a female convict (Mia Goth), born during the ship’s years-long trip to nowheresville. The prisoners scuffle over drugs and rape each other, as in any other prison movie. But here they also suffer from leukemia and stroke, from radiation leaks. Dr. Dibs fancies Monte, but he’s not interested, so she makes do with a chrome-plated dildo. Other changes happen to the travelers as time passes, and flashbacks intrude into the action from the collective subconscious.
The film initially leaves us cold, but that seems to be Denis’ intention. In common with the African immigrant hustlers in her No Fear, No Die, the people aboard the ship are the ones no one in particular cares about, and their gray-toned, low-key brand of suffering builds its own gloomy rhythm. Is it an allegory about ridding the earth of have-nots, or Denis’ effects-equipped venture into dystopian sci-fi? All we know is that before it ends we’re in the same lonely trance as the characters. In that respect, it works. But we might not want to see it again.