Mia Goth and Robert Pattinson in the beautiful but bleak “High Life,” which will confound “Twilight” fans. (Alcatraz Films)

Mia Goth and Robert Pattinson in the beautiful but bleak “High Life,” which will confound “Twilight” fans. (Alcatraz Films)

Robert Pattinson takes another giant leap away from mainstream

The former heartthrob plays an astronaut in Claire Denis’ peculiar but compelling sci-fi outing.

Robert Pattinson continues to sprint in the opposite direction from movie stardom, a fruitful path that has taken the actor from his sleepy-eyed, sparkly skinned vampire in the “Twilight” pictures to working with filmmakers such as David Cronenberg and Werner Herzog.

And now, to Claire Denis, one of Europe’s most uncompromising directors. Pattinson, with his slightly alien presence, fits right in to Denis’ dreamlike universe. The movie, in fact, is set in the universe: Pattinson plays Monte, an astronaut on a spaceship that will never travel back to Earth.

He’s not quite a regular astronaut. Without giving the entire plot away, let’s just say that Monte and others aboard have been selected for an experiment.

Heading up the study is Dr. Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a sex researcher, whose approach to her subjects is both clinical and sensual.

Whenever I write about Binoche (last seen in another Denis film, “Let the Sunshine In”), I invariably talk about how this fearless actress seems willing to do anything for a movie. In “High Life,” with a scene involving Dr. Dibs “riding” some kind of robotic sex machine/mechanical bull, this statement is truer than ever.

In customary Denis fashion, the film is not conventional. We trip back and forth in time, information is doled out sparingly, and the atmosphere — both image and sound — tends to overwhelm whatever storytelling might be intended. The spacey score is by Stuart A. Staples, from Tindersticks.

Other travelers on the spaceship are played by Mia Goth (“Suspiria”) and Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000 from Outkast). There’s also a toddler, whose role will expand, especially when the film reaches its eerie conclusion.

“High Life” is difficult to track as it unfolds; only after the movie was over did I start to piece together the purpose of its different parts. Or accept that some of its pieces have no purpose, except to create an almost palpable world of frustration and exploitation aboard the ship. It’s a puzzling experience, but it sure gets under your skin.

So many science-fiction films, though futuristic in content, unfold along familiar lines. Shouldn’t a sci-fi film take a new form, the way “2001: A Space Odyssey” did? I get the feeling that “High Life” might look perfectly normal 50 years from now, when we all just watch movies on devices implanted in our skulls.

And Pattinson? He’s good: believable as someone with a heavy past, but with enough glimmerings of humanity to suggest he could be the new Adam in the next Eden. In a movie that might not have been made without a bankable star attached, this is quite a leap for a former heartthrob.

“High Life” (3 stars)

Robert Pattinson plays an astronaut stuck on a spaceship where a very peculiar experiment is taking place. Director Claire Denis brings her usual dreamlike, atmosphere-heavy approach — a puzzling film, but it sure gets under your skin. With Juliette Binoche.

Rating: R, for nudity, violence

Showing: SIFF Uptown, Lincoln Square

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