In High Life (2018) filmmaker Claire Denis uses the science fiction genre to deal with human themes in the abstract. As a space ship of convicts hurdles towards a black hole Denis peels away the societal constructs that keep humanity from reverting to purely animalistic behavior. A mad scientist, a rapist, a monk-like gardener are but three of the extreme examples of human behavior and cruelty that Denis offers her often bewildered audience.
Doom permeates every frame of High Life as the inevitable draws near. The pressure of the black hole that causes skulls to implode is essentially the same pressure that erodes the morality of the space traveling convicts. Their’s is a suicidal mission of science wherein the mission is literally doomed by design. Without moral boundaries the crew becomes subject to the coercions, manipulations, and violations of one another. Denis gives us society breaking down in microcosm and it looks like a nightmare.
The human body becomes the battleground for autonomy. As Juliette Binoche’s mad scientist conducts experiments to bring a healthy fetus to birth, the men and women of the crew are treated as specimens. She holds all the power over the convicts and herself. This is celebrated in a shockingly beautiful, if disquieting, scene of masturbation. Denis pans over Binoche’s body as she rides a giant dildo and imagines it as some gigantic beast. All other attempts at self gratification are halted by intervention, sometimes even violently.
Denis opens the film with Robert Pattinson and a baby girl adrift in a derelict space craft. After half an hour of observing their isolated existence Denis reveals the story of how they came to be there. The final half hour focuses on Pattinson and the girl, who is now about ten (Jessie Ross), preparing to enter the void of the black hole. Structurally Denis draws upon 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) even though High Life itself seems more interested in entering a discourse with Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014).
Both Interstellar and High Life deal explicitly with father/daughter relationships and, superficially, with black holes. The difference is that Denis, a daughter herself, focuses entirely on the human ramifications of science fiction genre tropes. Where Interstellar veers off into pomposity, pretension, and pseudo science High Life ruminates over the joint frailties of the human spirit and the human body. Denis’ film dismisses Nolan’s picture outright and challenges the masculinist pretensions of such genre classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solaris (1972). Denis’ film is a film of rage screaming out into the void of space.