The idea that modernity and civilisation merely mask the baser animalistic purpose of man is a common theme in dystopian and apocalyptic drama. This notion that humanity is beholden to technology and consumerism has its origins in the early twentieth-century if not before in the industrial revolution. Many novels, films and films of novels have explored what would happen if suddenly society as we know ceased to exist due to failures of power and infrastructure, or disastrous climate events, and in these hellish projections everything breaks down into chaos, anarchy and inevitable violence as people turn on each other for scarce resources – that will for individual survival destroying anything and anyone in its path.
Ben Wheatley’s new film High Rise, premiered at the London Film Festival is an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel about a group of people living in an enormous tower block – a concrete edifice to modernity, convenience and power that quite literally keeps people on their own social level – working classes at the bottom and aristocracy at the top. In the penthouse is Mr Royal (Jeremy Irons) known as ‘The Architect’ who created the building and seems to be somehow connected to its very existence – given his surname it’s not difficult to see who Ballard is modelling him on. And the various levels never engage with one another until one day Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into floor 25, right in the middle (naturally given his profession) and strikes up acquaintances with the attractive single mother upstairs (Sienna Miller), a working class family with a heavily pregnant mother (Elizabeth Moss) and gains access to The Architect himself. But power failures dog the lower floors and soon things begin to disintegrate; the lower floors want the mysterious Architect to answer for himself while those at the top will do anything to protect their privileges. Violence and chaos soon become the norm but what effects does this have on the middle classes and who will Dr Laing risk his life and sanity for?
High Rise is an extremely odd film, bizarre and quirky to reflect its novel origins, but after a very strong start loses its way in the middle for a good thirty minutes before clawing back to some kind of appropriate conclusion at the end. Now, I don’t mind odd, it’s always interesting to see films that try something new and by unsettling the audience make them think about the core themes and issues under discussion. What I did find frustrating about this film, however, was the initial introduction of several solid themes which never actually go anywhere because the director gets distracted by the chaos and violence for far too long, and for its own sake rather than as a means to reinforce the central points about class and the dangers of social segregation. Let me try to explain.
The film opens with Laing moving into his bare concrete space – it’s minimal, filled with gadgets and appears to represent a certain simple but expensive lifestyle, a bachelor pad. Out of the window the building is surrounded on all sides by a giant car park with rows and rows of cars denoting the number of people living in this enormous tower and, given its 1970s setting, the obsession with consumerism, functionality and style that seemed particularly pertinent to this era. This notion is reiterated by the in-house supermarket (how amazing to have supermarket in the middle of your building) which looks like something out of Stepford wives or a PopArt exhibition with perfectly placed packaging arranged in row upon row of mass produced goods. So what this should be setting-up, is some comment on the emptiness of a consumerist lifestyle and how violently this obsession with surface is utterly destroyed along with the social order. But for some reason, after initially implying all of this, Wheatley doesn’t follow it through.
The second interesting idea is the examination of class which forms the mini-society confined within the building. At the top is a fascinating penthouse suite owned by the Architect and his wife which is a fantastical place, decadent and luxurious in comparison to the sleek concrete of the middle floors and messy family homes of the lower orders. The Architect also has a huge outdoor garden on the roof which looks like something from a country manor complete with white horse, and in the centre is his futuristic foil-lined designing space where he pours over plans. The design here is fantastic and how the visual shape of the rooms and costume is used denote these differences is very clever, but other than revealing an equally repellent and selfish desire to survive at all costs, any comment that Wheatley is trying to make about the upper class residents is somewhat hazy. Even the use of reflective surfaces in several places as we see two of the characters through the top of a glass coffee table, and even better as Laing is herded into The Architects private lift which like a kaleidoscope shows our hero’s face reflected over and over – in a really insightful suggestion of humanity’s distortion – isn’t really picked up later in the film.
And finally we’re given hints at Laing’s different perspective on the crisis in the building, particularly as he’s the only one who ever seems to leave it and go to work. The other male residents talk about jobs but we only see them within the confines of the building itself. So Laing’s role as a doctor could have been used to give the audience hints either about the pettiness of the arguments within the high rise, relative to Laing’s experience in the wider world, or by contrast using Laing as means to imply that the whole world is infected with the same rotten core as the building, and his movement between the two is merely as carrier of the contagion. I don’t think either is really attempted here and instead these initial hints don’t ever resolve themselves into any tangible comment on the actions within the building and instead Laing merely retains his role as some kind of link without necessarily judging either side.
So with all these potentially fascinating things going on, it is a shame that midway through the film Wheatley turns away from this to focus entirely and rather gratuitously on the sex and violence that is always far too obviously the consequence of social breakdown. A bit of this is fine but you very quickly get the message that things are rapidly falling apart both in the infrastructure as parts of the high rise start to collapse and in the social order, thus people turn to looting and desperate couplings as rules give way to survival techniques. One of the particularly disappointing things about this section of the film is not just that it seems like a teenage boy’s fantasy that isn’t going anywhere, but that it clearly puts all the women in the film into the position of just objects and mothers. Now Ballard presumably has something to do with this but it’s still a shame to see the female characters reduced in this way when ultimately it has nothing to add to the things the audience has already perceived, or to the overall message of the film.
The performances on the whole are very good and it’s one of the saving graces of High Rise even when things go astray. Tom Hiddleston is very good as Laing, bringing an outsider’s distance to his performance which helps to explain his ability to flit between classes and means his ultimate decision makes sense. You never entirely sympathise with him either, Laing is not a likeable figure but Hiddleston retains his slightly corporate stance throughout wearing a suit even when order collapses and his sanity is never quite clear, which makes for an interesting performance. Jeremy Irons is an enigmatic figure as The Architect who is rather Wizard of Oz-like, initially a crazy inventor type who becomes increasingly sinister as things break down. Sienna Miller pretty much gives the same performance she did in Layer Cake and Alfie as the sultry party girl which is effective but doesn’t demand too much of her, while Elizabeth Moss is a discomposing figure as an expectant mother, much put upon by her philandering husband and seeing Laing as a potential escape. I couldn’t help feeling how interesting it might have been for Moss and Miller to swap roles and defy expectations.
High Rise has a lot going for it, not just in the performances and production design by Mark Tildesley but where it begins and ends well with lots of interesting things to say about the nature of humanity in chaos and the fragility of modern society, it does wander off the point for far too long in the middle which makes viewing frustrating. There is something to be said for films that push audiences out of their comfort zone, that challenge preconceived ideas of how films ought to progress but the tangents here are so prolonged and unnecessary that cutting that 30 minutes out of the film would vastly improve it. That way the very stylish beginning could fully realise its potential and mean that High Rise could be added to the canon of dystopian movies that warn of what life could so easily become.
High Rise was shown at the London Film Festival and no wider UK release date has been advertised. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.