At the heart of Claire Denis’s 2018 film High Life is the bond between a parent and child. Monte, played by Robert Pattinson, is the parent. When he was a boy, he killed a friend of his and is now, as the film opens, serving a life sentence. Rather than living out his days in a cell, however, Monte is voyaging toward a black hole in an artless, boxy spaceship as part of a governmental bargain: volunteer your life for an energy-source search and you won’t spend the rest of your life on death row.
Despite Monte’s refusal to use “The Box,” a room on the ship designed for sexual release, and apart from his consent or even awareness, he ends up fathering a daughter through the artificial interventions of the ship’s doctor. As the film opens, we watch Monte, with no detectable joy on his face, though not without tenderness, hold his tiny daughter’s hand and coax her into her first erratic steps. We watch as he tries in vain to mend a piece of the ship’s exterior while communicating with his daughter through his headset. She sits in a makeshift playpen, cooing and crying, as her father’s voice crackles through the computer positioned just out of her reach. The camera lingers lovingly on her chubby forearms, the bulge that bunches around her wrists, her delicate fingers. Her skin is bathed in amber light, in disquieting contrast to the dark emptiness outside the ship’s windows.
With unsettling force, these scenes insist that we not forget what having children has ultimately always been about: the quest to stave off death, to make a bid, however improbable, for the story of which we’re a part to have a future. Watching a baby defy the odds by hurtling through space in a sci-fi horror movie is a thinly disguised parable for our own condition, if we have eyes to see it.
To parents unshielded by relational and medical privilege—which includes many parents in the modern West and in the United States—having children is at once risky and necessary: risky because pregnancy, still, carries with it at least a whiff of the possibility of death, for the child and also for the mother; and necessary because, despite the risk, it is the way to try to ensure we won’t be alone in old age and that our history won’t die when we do. We moderns have devised various ways to forget this historic entanglement of procreation with risk and necessity. We have children for all sorts of reasons that appear to have nothing to do with the project of species perpetuation or with the fear of being forgotten in our final years and beyond. And yet, like High Life’s devastating juxtaposition of the beauty and fragility of a young child with the pitiless indifference of intergalactic space, the awareness of how much children represent hope—hope in the face of loss, loneliness and nonexistence—stubbornly flickers on.