High-Rise Offers Floor to Ceiling Satire, Laughs, and Cynicism
J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High Rise was, at the time, a scathing commentary on society’s fragile class system and how in the face of growing capitalism and technological advances people would lose sight of their own humanity. Director Ben Wheatley’s (Kill List, Sightseers) new film adaptation hits many of the same humorous, cynical, and thrilling notes, but in 2015 what was once shocking now feels simply and sadly matter of fact.
Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has just moved into a brand new high rise apartment building, and he couldn’t be happier. That’s mostly because he’s not really the kind of guy who ever gets happy, but the building is pretty snazzy. His apartment features the best amenities available, and the building itself includes squash courts, spas, and a grocery store filled with all the generic goods a consumer could possibly want.
It also includes a variety of tenants divided physically by floors and ceilings, and financially by, well, floors and ceilings. The lower class residents are positioned on the lower levels while the slightly better off and even more fiscally enlightened look down on them from above. It’s a delicately balanced microcosm, and it’s one outrage away from exploding into anarchy. Cue that outrage, and soon factions develop divided by class, supplies are hoarded, pets are eaten, and survival becomes the second biggest priority on everyone’s mind. The first is planning a fantastic dinner party, obviously.
High-Rise is an incredibly funny and absurd look at class, blind consumerism, and the destabilization of community. The building has everything these people need, meaning there’s no reason to ever leave. Wheatley keeps the novel’s mid-’70s setting, but the modern (at the time) building could easily be re-imagined as the even more isolating “future” we’re living in today. Apps are available for everything, and our phone (or laptop or iWatch) screens have become necessary life support systems. The idea’s the same in that as more and more things come to exist at our fingertips the need to use our legs or communicative social skills grows smaller.
The film spills its societal indictment onto the screen very early on, and while the random acts of violence and catering grow in intensity the theme remains the same. Things escalate, but the film simply plateaus partway through – at an admittedly entertaining state – and then eventually comes to an end. This is less a negative than a statement of fact, but it and its now-quaint (albeit still cynical) observation on society prevent the film from becoming much more than “just” a ridiculously fun and intensely aware experience. It’s hard to imagine anyone having their eyes opened by the film the same way Ballard’s novel did for readers four decades ago.
Amy Jump’s script leads viewers through various acts of rebellion and revolt, each more farcical than the last, and the cast is fully along for the ride. Hiddleston cuts a shimmering swathe through the film as an anti-hero capable of running with all manner of beasts regardless of the size of their bank account. He’s just as at home with the messy lower class as he is with the differently messy social elite, and his all-consuming lack of loyalty endears him as our guide through the ensuing madness.
Just as enjoyable though are the various faces in the supporting cast, many of whom appear to be celebrating the opportunity to cut loose in entertaining ways. James Purefoy, Jeremy Irons, and Luke Evans shine more and more as the high rise descends into deeper levels of chaos. Elisabeth Moss, Sienna Miller, and Keeley Hawes do great, emotional work here too, but for the most part the film’s female characters aren’t allowed to be as exuberant as the world crumbles around them.
The film is almost entirely set within the confines of the tower – part of its humor and power comes from the realization that the outside world is humming along like normal even as the building’s occupants go all Lord of the Flies – but it never feels less than a fully imagined environment. Production designer Mark Tildesley and cinematographer Laurie Rose create a pristine, sharp environment and then capture its beautifully-choreographed destruction.
High-Rise’s commentary on capitalism, class, and consumerism is still relevant today – perhaps even more so now – but it doesn’t quite hit with the same force. Exaggerated as it is, it doesn’t take much in the way of cynicism and common sense to see that today’s society is that much closer to a breakdown. Still, while the film’s observation may not be as biting as the book’s was forty years ago it manages to put its gums on us something fierce.
The Upside: Very funny; important in its themes; fantastic cast allowed out of their usual domains; Clint Mansell’s score; montage set to Portishead’s cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S.”
The Downside: Eventually feels redundant in its themes too; female characters feel relegated to a far more passive existence
Editor’s note: Our review of High-Rise originally ran during Fantastic Fest 2015, but we’re re-posting it now as the film is in limited release.