High-Rise (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language and some drug use
Running Time: 119 min.
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Sienna Guillory, Louis Suc, Peter Ferdinando, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Tony Way
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay: Amy Jump (based on the novel, "High Rise", by J.G. Ballard)
Review published May 6, 2016
Set in 1975, Tom Hiddleston (Crimson Peak, I Saw the Light) stars as successful physiologist, Dr. Robert Laing, who has recently moved in to the 25th floor of one of several new high-rise buildings in a not-quite-finished avant-garde apartment complex in London. The architect of the complex, an eccentric architect on the uppermost floor named Anthony Royal (Irons, Batman v Superman), has designed the buildings to never need to be part of the ground-level activity surrounding the buildings, as each one offers its own means of taking care of one's daily needs, from groceries, to schooling, to entertainment, to a host of other amenities. Although everyone pays the same rent money, the building also seems to have its own class system in terms of who lives on what floor, as the elites live in higher floors than those below. One of those below is Richard Wilder (Evans, Furious 7), a documentarian who begins to suspect that there are great inequities in the way the building is structured, threatening to expose it for what it is to the public at large. As the new building begins to show signs of faulty facilities in disrepair, anarchy begins to take hold The resultant chaos erupts into a battle between the haves and have-nots for whatever resources are left to be had within the walls of the structure.
Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers) directs the adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1975 visionary counterculture novel of the same name (adding a hyphen) by his wife and frequent collaborator, Amy Jump (A Field in England). Whereas Ballard's book is more interested in how societal behavior might change when detached from the external through sterile homogeneity, completely surrounded by the relative security of steel, concrete, and newfangled technological advances, Wheatley and Jump are more interested in seeing the devolution of the building's system as a commentary on social hierarchies and class warfare. Both stories do push forward the petty issues of the respective parties involved, as well as the unraveling into barbarism that takes hold without any authority in place to keep the peace, akin to William Golding's "The Lord of the Flies" in this regard. Interestingly, the subject of race is sidestepped altogether, because all of the tenants are white, which possibly says more about the owners of the buildings than anything said in the course of the movie, though this negates any claim among thematic dissectors of the film might have that this is supposed to represent a microcosm of society.
Because the filmmakers are always keenly aware that the story is a commentary throughout, the characters aren't fleshed out any more than need be to fulfill their symbolic representation for the purpose of the satirical beats. Robert Laing is meant to be our through-line to understanding this caste system, as he can walk among both the top and bottom dwelling residents, but outside of his occupation and the fact that the recent loss of his sister has left him without any family to speak of, he's about as enigmatic as the rest. This leaves us to ponder why so much time and effort has been given to the social deconstruction that runs rampant through the film's second half, where it becomes a more graphic version of Jean-Luc Godard's satire on the bourgeoisie, Weekend. Without any single person to identify with, we can do little but watch characters we have no rooting interest in, or much like, doing vicious things to other characters we don't particularly care about, until we get to the opening scene we all know will be coming at some point down the road.
As mentioned in the film, there's no single moment that causes the societal breakdown. Rather, it's the erosion that sets in once the ability for both necessities and luxuries cease to be available, causing those without to have to resort to more drastic means to get what they feel is their right to have. Ironically, the rich are too isolated to see the situation for what it is, thinking that it's poor people who lack the ability to enjoy things for what they are, always "making things about money." Allusions to the aristocracy that rules France before the French Revolution are abundant, as the rich above even have a costume party where they dress in their Renaissance finest, and even 'eat cake'. Meanwhile, there are nods to the decay going on around them, from the rotting fruit of the supermarket, to the breakdown of the electronic equipment made to foster a life of relative ease. In contrast to the J.G. Ballard work, the film version of High-Rise is often too literal to feel literary.
Though the film is clearly, from its outset, a semi-surreal satire on class and capitalism, there are still things that aren't as adequately explained in the film. For one, it's not adequately explained why, when fearing for their lives, the inhabitants of the building wouldn't escape when they have the chance with their spouses and children. "Normal" society exists around them, and even though the powers-that-be are doing a good job in keeping the goings-on away from the authorities, it doesn't really make sense that 100% of the people in the building would stay there as if it were a prison. Reportedly, this aspect is explained better in the book as another commentary on how one's sense of time and place become distorted by one's current environment, but it's unsatisfyingly addressed in this film. Also, the film shows many of the building's residents heading out to the "real world" nearly every day to go to their jobs, and presumably see family and friends, so the sense of isolation and the rapid descent into madness seems unwarranted given they have other outlets beyond the apartment complex.
High-Rise begins to wear thin as it plays through its nearly two hour length, cycling through themes redundantly, which is further compounded by the three-month flash-forward at the into that shows how far conditions have devolved in the building, leading us to know exactly where things are going from the outset. Whatever shock value the film could have held is immediately muted by the knowledge that the value of human life has become nil, and family pets will be consumed when the food runs out. The film also needlessly repeats the oft-repeated theme on capitalism with a clip from a speech by Margaret Thatcher, who first rose to prominence as the leader of the Conservative Party in Britain in the year the film is set.
If the film feels repetitive, it also feels antiquated, as it feels nearly identical to other class-based satires to come since Ballard's novel, most notably in Brazil, and most recently in the nearly identical plot in Snowpiercer, in which class is divided on a train by cars, with the lowest classes near the caboose and the upper classes toward the engine. In the former, it's the whole of society that is in a state of oppressiveness, while in the latter, the entirety of known society is in one location. This society within a society doesn't make nearly as much sense, so the allegorical qualities fall apart. Perhaps additional nods to Marie Antoinette aren't inappropriate; High-Rise tries to have its cake and eat it too.
©2016 Vince Leo