'High Life' Review: The Sweetest, Most Sinister Sci-Fi Movie in Years

All the intensity of Stanley Kubrick’s '2001: A Space Odyssey' is here, but the beauty of that film has been stripped away.

High Life is a movie about Robert Pattinson raising a baby on a spaceship. It’s also so much more: a parable for the prison-industrial complex, an exploration of interstellar travel and String Theory, and a movie where André 3000 calls Pattinson “mister blue nuts.” But in its opening scenes, it’s easy to pretend that French director Claire Denis’ new film (her first in English) is the charming story of an astronaut and his daughter as she learns to take her first steps on a rocket ship racing through the cosmos.

Even when Pattinson opens the door to his spaceship (a giant gray rectangle traveling away from Earth towards the nearest black hole at the speed of light) and casually tosses several dead bodies into the blackness in one of the movie’s first scenes, there’s something pleasantly dreamlike about that action. It’s not until High Life jumps back in time to explain how Pattinson found himself in space as the sole guardian of an infant that the movie truly unravels into something sinister.

high life review

Saying anymore about the plot of High Life essentially qualifies as a spoiler for a movie where the main action is simply watching the story unravel across the past, present, and future (never in that order). If you’d rather go in mostly blind, just know that you’re in for something viscerally discomforting. All the intensity of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is here, but the beauty of that film has been stripped away. The spaceship is dim and beige, and the uniforms match. The only good thing left on this edge of the universe is the love between a father and his daughter.

Ok, spoilers: As we learn midway through High Life as the story shifts back in time to the voyage’s origins, this is no ordinary spaceship. Everyone onboard is a criminal, sentenced to death on Earth but offered a chance to serve society in space as part of a scientific experiment. That includes Pattinson’s character, Monte, along with his fellow inmates Tcherny (André Benjamin, aka André 3000, who it turns out is a pretty great actor in this small but powerful role), Boyse (Mia Goth) and a handful of other young criminals turned lab rats. Even Dr. Dibs (Juliette Bînoche), who’s presumably on board to run the experiment, was a convicted murderer back home.

André 3000 in 'High Life'
André 3000 in 'High Life'

The idea came to Denis during a trip to Texas after she read an article about a town that wondered if their death row inmates could be put to use, the director explained at a premiere event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“They said: It’s really hard to spend so much money on these people,” she recalled. “We should use them for good reason.”

Combine that bit of 21st century American horror with another movie idea she had for a man all alone in the universe except for his daughter and the result is High Life

As for the experiment happening onboard Denis’ ship (basically a large windowless jail), it’s twofold. First, Dr. Dibs attempts to impregnate her subjects in an effort to learn if childbirth is possible in space (Pattinson abstains, hence “mister blue nuts”). A series of sterile, scientific attempts all fail with horrific results until Dibs takes matters into her own hands, leading to the birth of that one perfect baby. The second experiment begins once they reach a black hole and attempt to achieve orbit around its gravity, which could potentially lead to a huge breakthrough in energy production. (The science here is never particularly clear, but it never matters.)

high life review
Juliette Bînoche with Robert Pattinson

If any of this actually sounds reasonable you should definitely watch High Life, which makes it clear that the entire mission is nothing but an exercise in cruelty. We soon learn that the research these inmates do will never make it back to Earth. Meanwhile, onboard the ship, enforced order quickly devolves into chaos, leading to multiple moments of sexual assault that illustrate the way prison strips humans of their humanity and corrupts those in a position of power.

Violence and death quickly follow, and before long Pattinson is alone with his daughter. Of course, we knew this was coming. High Life starts with a man and his child all alone and that’s how it ends too. But by the time we make it back to that moment, even the beauty of their pure relationship has been stripped away.

All that’s left is endless, lonely space.

High Life review

High Life is in select theaters now.

Media via A24