A group of convicts floats through space in a vessel that looks more like a barge than something designed by anyone who'd ever seen a spaceship or a movie about one. These unfortunate souls evidently thought that traveling through the darkened void en route to a black hole would be better than submitting to the death penalty on Earth.
Earth, by the way, has become so distant for them that there's barely enough memory of it left to fuel a decent flashback. Later, we'll learn that the Earth is pretty much doomed and that these voyagers might be what's left of humanity. In the movies, humanity never has difficulty finding its way toward extinction. All connections to reality, we presume, are purely intentional.
French director Claire Denis begins her movie by showing us an onboard garden where vegetables are cultivated. A shoe, apparently detached from its owner, peeks out from beneath the soil. We'll also see a man in a space suit (Robert Pattinson) tightening bolts outside the craft. Inside, an infant girl happily makes infant-girl noises. We presume the man in the space suit is the girl's father.
Gradually, Denis -- working in English for the first time -- reveals her approach, which has less to do with sci-fi than with quietly subjecting her characters to the kinds of cruelty desperate people are prone to inflict on one another. She's also studying sexual gratification, which takes place on the ship in a device called "The Box."
In conjunction with the movie's approach to sex, we meet a crazed scientist (Juliette Binoche) who's obsessed with reproducing life in deep space. Many bodily fluids flow as Dibs, who seems to be in charge of the others, collects sperm samples from the men as part of her experiments.
The scene in which Binoche's character enters "The Box" for sexual stimulation requires the actress to abandon all inhibition. At the same time, it can feel more squirm-inducing than erotic. Dibs, after all, is getting it on with a machine, perhaps the most elaborate sex toy ever to spring from someone's imagination.
No, I haven't forgotten the infant, who showed up early in the movie but who represents a later development in the story's shuffled chronology. Baby Willow (Scarlett Lindsey) receives tender treatment from Pattinson's Monte. She also drives him crazy with her crying.
Denis gradually reveals what happens to the rest of the crew, pacing her movie so slowly you might wonder whether she regards anything resembling narrative drive as a cardinal sin.
Other passengers on this voyage include a black man (Andre Benjamin) who says he volunteered to bring glory to his family and a variety of women (Mia Goth, Agata Buzek, Claire Tran, and Gloria Obianyo).
After the passage of time, Jessie Ross portrays the teenage Willow. Ewan Mitchell appears as one of the more violent passengers on this trip toward the void.
Pattinson, who often whispers his character's thoughts, continues to be one of today's most adventurous actors. Same goes for Binoche. I didn't always know what Denis' purposes were, but these two actors seem to suit them perfectly.
Credit Denis with creating a pervasive sense of weirdness that gets under the skin, insinuating itself into consciousness, somewhat in the way that the steady flow of an IV drip invades the veins. You may leave the movie in a kind of art-induced daze.
But what does it all mean? Too much? Too little?
Denis operates light years away from thrill-a-minute Hollywood cinema; her style requires patience and perhaps a little caffeine. I wish I could say, High Life produced a more discernible reward. I'm not sure that the movie's images lend themselves to any resounding thematic statement. High Life just might be a movie that wants to say something profound but leaves us wondering exactly what that might be.