Finding Faith in High Life
Filling a rocket with garbage and blasting it off of the planet seems like a great solution to dealing with our waste until you try figuring out the logistics (Too expensive.) But someday we might remove our figurative trash from the face of the earth by packing them together into a shipping crate and shooting them off into space.
Obviously, the world of High Life chose the most unlikely and most convoluted alternative to the death penalty. And even if you’re paying close attention, High Life isn’t so logical. This group of horny criminals has been entrusted with flying towards a black hole to harness energy capable of saving the planet. There’s a sex box, a horde of dogs ruling an abandoned ship of the same mission, a doctor playing god — no real order here, only a few threads of sanity that are plucked away one by one throughout the film. How or why these devices and equipment were included onboard, what the true nature of the expedition is: these questions, to High Life, are not important. To High Life, the logistics of space travel, and of this film at large, are not given nearly as much weight as their implications.
From the opening scene, we know the expedition has gone to shit. Monte’s repeating of “Dada,” is ominously so desperate for Willow to speak. We’re afraid that at some point recently he went off his rocker and killed everyone. But as the film rewinds and unravels itself, we realize that that is not the case, that Monte is one of the few (relatively) sane — or at the very least, grounded — persons on this expedition. Although most members of the crew are mostly interested in getting high off of Doctor Dibs’s drugs or wasting their time in the “Fuckbox,” redemption is important to some of our characters.
Tcherny tends to the garden as a reprieve reminiscent of earth. Monte himself remains impervious to the drugs, the masturbatory box, becoming quite like a monk, as one character quips. And following the death of the captain, Doctor Dibs takes on the role of warden while she pursues her obsession with birthing a baby via the artificial insemination of one of the inmates. Later in the film, it’s revealed she’s alongside the others for the killing of her family. Her feverish need for a child is what drives this otherwise slightly wandering, nonlinear film. Although she is trying to find salvation through new life, it is this drive that indirectly brings about the most destruction to the crew.
By harnessing the energy of the black hole, our felons will thus (theoretically) atone for their sins, and be turned into heroes perhaps, or at least neutralized of their crimes. But when Boyse discovered she was sedated (for nine months ostensibly and wildly, as she appears surprised post-birth by the child Willow), she seeks vengeance by killing the pilot and taking her place in the shuttle slingshotting around the black hole, ultimately causing her head to explode. Here, we’re almost ready to believe that change is not possible for the criminals. From this moment the most havoc is wreaked, the most people killed in the heat of the moment, leaving Monte alone with Willow, the mission failed.
Or at least, seemingly failed. Despite the odds, Monte goes on to raise Willow to adolescence, even as their ship falls into disrepair around them. While Monte is quietly hell-bent on forgetting his past, Willow makes this impossible him, curious now about her past — their past. She does some digging into his, uncovering something the audience already knows, that he’s only in this shipping container of a spacecraft because he killed his friend over his dog. Willow is aghast at this, cannot believe that this is why he’s here, for something done when he was around her age. As Willow begins to learn and try to understand more about Earth and where she came from, they are — in truly questionable and miraculous odds, but let’s go with it — met with another of their own ships, floating listlessly through space. Monte can hardly believe it, but Willow doesn’t understand why. He explains, “There might be other people on board.”
“So?” she responds, indifferent. Monte is incredulous, and all he can do is laugh.
“They might be able to help us.”
Poignantly, she answers, “We don’t need help.”
Despite this, Monte continues onto the ship, where, (again, seemingly) tragically, all he finds is an even more dismal state of affairs, not a person in sight and dog after dog after dog. In a rare moment in High Life, we’re given this directly from Monte’s point of view, viewing this extreme disappointment directly from his eyes.
But what is a moment of despair for Monte is a moment of hope and excitement for Willow, who begs him to bring one of the hounds aboard, who has to be scolded by Monte to exit the staging chamber so he can return to their home. Eventually, Willow concedes, “you’re right, dad, we have everything we need here,” something Monte never actually says to her. Yet this only increases Willow’s growing affinity with the Earth, prompting her to begin praying, even as she doesn’t know the names of any gods. When they discover, against all odds, another black hole, it’s Willow that convinces Monte to proceed with the energy harvest mission.
High Life resonates deeply as a commentary of mass incarceration crisis. The system is set to fail Monte, Doctor Dibbs, everyone else on board. It almost does. It mostly does. From the brief interview we’re given on Earth, hardly anyone seems to know or care. And yet Willow is able to pull Monte out of this, to save him from fate. Although Monte has no reason any more to believe in his country, “the system,” or humanity at large, Willow still finds hope in mankind. High Life suggests that even as the world around us seems hopeless, we can reverse this through the circular nature of life. Willow sees something in mankind that Monte no longer can — despite the fact that she has no ties to the Earth and what life there is truly like. Through this, through her, Monte is able to redeem himself. Clearly, in the final scene, bathed in golden light and exchanging their gazes, Monte and Willow have found something that we can’t see. Although our reality may seem grim, High Life posits that through the continuation of life, we might be able to redeem ourselves and society.