Robert Pattinson Heads to Space in Terrifying and Surreal ‘High Life’

Robert Pattinson, the former teen heartthrob who most recently made an impression with his gritty turn in “Good Time,” continues his streak of challenging, outside-of-the-box roles with his latest film, the dystopian space odyssey “High Life.” Pattinson plays a character simply known as Monte, one of a group of criminals who travel to space in order to avoid the death penalty. Convicted for murder, Monte volunteers to “serve science” on this mission to find alternative energy sources. However, it soon becomes apparent that there is something more sinister going on, as Dibs (Juliette Binoche), the doctor who is supposed to be caring for the prisoners and crew has her own dark agenda in this unearthly thriller.

“High Life” has a non-linear timeline, and Monte is first introduced caring for his infant daughter (Scarlett Lindsey). Flashbacks to months earlier show the environment in which this child was conceived and the events that led to their being the only two living souls left on the ship. Dibs, who has a violent criminal past herself, is revealed to be performing  unethical fertility experiences on the prisoners in hopes of harvesting a viable fetus. The women, of course, bear the brunt of her cruelty, being forcibly inseminated. The anguish of Boyse, (a terrific Mia Goth), the most rebellious of the bunch, is especially palpable, as she tries in vain to protect not only herself, but her more complacent girlfriend, Elektra (Gloria Obianyo), from Dibs’ violations. As for the men, the doctor takes their sperm, although Monte manages to keep his fluids to himself. That is, until Dibs resorts to assaulting him while he is in a drug-induced slumber. For an creepy extra touch, she has also created a chamber known as The Box, in which herself and the prisoners can take care of their sexual needs solo, leaving behind DNA in the process. As one can probably guess from the above,“High Life” is not a film for the squeamish.

“High Life” is the English-language debut of French director Claire Denis, who creates a world that is both beautiful and terrifying. While a story of prisoners being sexual abused and experimented on would probably be impactful no matter what the location, the space setting amplifies the eeriness and feelings of isolation. While the unhinged Dibs is driven to desperation in her quest to create a new life, the prisoners are more successful with their little garden. André Benjamin, who is best known as one-half of Outkast, gives an impressive performance as Tcherny, a prisoner whose dedication to this lush patch of greenery keeps him relatively tranquil.

The highlight of “High Life” is, without a doubt, Pattinson’s performance. Early on in the timeline, he is a rather passive character. On Earth, he was a loner who’s only loved one was a dog, so it’s understandable that he keeps to himself in his current situation. However, after Mia and some of the other women are brutally attacked by another male prisoner, something inside of him shifts as he comes to their rescue. And finally, there’s his relationship with his daughter Willow, a child he never wanted who was conceived against his will, but he comes to love fiercely. Pattinson is moving to watch as he tenderly cares for the child, cooing to her, and, years later when she’s a young woman (Jessie Ross), treating her more like an equal as they work together to complete the original of extracting energy from a black hole.

High Life” opens April 5 in select theaters.