“The screen went black…. The film hadn’t broken; the projector had simply been turned off. And then the houselights began to come up, a totally unheard-of occurrence. We sat there looking around, blinking in the light like moles. The manager walked out into the middle of the stage and held his hands up—quite unnecessarily—for quiet….
“I want to tell you,” he said in that trembly voice, “that the Russians have put a space satellite into orbit around the earth. They call it . . . Spootnik.”
– Stephen King, Danse Macabre
Space wasn’t always scary. At first, it was simply the stars and little else. As time went on, humanity began to learn more about the solar system, but I doubt many thought to be afraid of it. In the early 20th century – perhaps even sooner than that – writers began to speculate about the cosmos in a less strictly academic manner. Science-fiction was born. By and large, these writings were optimistic and more than a little naïve. All the imagination in the world couldn’t fathom what it would take for us to enter space or what it would actually look like when we got there. The scientific community continued to make new discoveries. Sometimes those discoveries were incorporated into science-fiction when it suited authors and filmmakers, but mostly they were ignored. UFOs and extraterrestrials began to invade the planet Earth, but always in the form of light entertainment. Spooky, maybe, but not scary.
Then the Space Race began and the Soviet Union got off to an early lead. According to Stephen King, that was when we began to be afraid. Maybe he is right and maybe he isn’t. I wasn’t there, so I really can’t say, although that hasn’t stopped me from making a great many other assumptions and broad generalizations. The point is, however, that it wasn’t so much space that people feared as what was out there, be it aliens or the Russians. Somewhere further down the line, however, we realized that space itself is scary. We began to fear the void.
Claire Denis’ High Life mines that fear to great effect. In its opening moments, Monte (Robert Pattinson) repairs the exterior of a space craft while trying to soothe his infant child over the radio. Inside the ship, the baby screams, and outside it, Monte drops a wrench. It disappears into blackness. A few scenes later, Monte drags the bodies of his fellow crew members and, one by one, places them into space suits before dropping them into that same darkness. It is unclear if they are dead or simply unconscious.
The first third isn’t all existential dread. Robert Pattinson gives his best performance yet as a loving father who cares deeply for his child despite the hopelessness of their situation. These early moments are some of my favorites, and they suit Denis’ strengths as filmmaker, relying more on visual storytelling than on the dialogue, which was somewhat spottily translated into English from her native French. Gradually, the fragmented narrative begins to piece things together through flashbacks, but only up to a point. We learn that Monte and the rest of the crew are all death-row inmates whose sentences were commuted when they agreed to participate in a scientific research mission. The mission has something to do with mining black holes for alternative energy and is overseen by Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche) but she seems more interested in her side project – sexually experimenting on the crew in the hopes of creating new life aboard the spacecraft.
The rundown space station from Solaris is an obvious inspiration, but Denis seems to take Tarkovsky’s vision for a more human space odyssey in a much more biological direction – virtually every bodily fluid makes an appearance here. Although the film is already out of most theaters, it is here that I should say that High Life is not meant for most. It is perverse, vile, and disturbing. It brutalizes the viewer, so much so that at least one sequence has kept me from seeing it a second time. But as unpleasant and even excessive as the middle portion of the film becomes, it isn’t without purpose. Several key images call to mind Eden and the Fall. If there ever was a Garden, these characters couldn’t be any further removed from it. In a very literal sense, their sin has taken them to the darkest recesses of space. There, they are cooped up with one another while being experimented upon by someone every bit as evil as the rest of them. For what? It is a pointless, prolonged suicide mission. Nothing they discover will ever make it back to Earth. They can’t save the world. They are so cut off from it that it might as well never have existed.
But the film has a curious structure. It begins with emptiness, turns to horror, and ends with beauty.
Whether intentionally or not, High Life acts as a response to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, another science-fiction film featuring a father-daughter relationship set against a cosmic backdrop. In the end, Nolan’s film asserted that human love is a transcendent thing, more than capable of overcoming the emptiness of space. It embodied humanism at its most arrogant and shallow. Though its worldview is harder to pin down, High Life concludes with a stirring metaphor for the act of faith. That it should come after so much cruelty and despair is not a cheat or a thematic deus ex machina that washes away all the unpleasantness. Those things remain and they loom large over the film, but they don’t get the final say. High Life does not reject the void, but instead surrenders itself to it. With humility, it acknowledges all that we can never know with certainty, leaving room for hope in the process.
I look at the world and I see meaning. But space is something different. It is cold and empty, and for all of our discoveries, it remains a vast unknown. Watching High Life, I felt a visceral, gut-level doubt. I felt small and scared. I can go about my day-to-day life never thinking of the cosmos, but a simple cinematic representation of it is enough to make me wonder about everything I believe. It reminds me of how often I assume I know all that I need to about life, while keeping my doubts and fears buried and out of sight. Those things will always be there, no matter how much I try to pretend otherwise. But through faith, I give my entire self over to God. I surrender to the void, trusting that it is not a void at all.