Times have changed since J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise was published in 1975, but with Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of the acclaimed novel, we get a vigorous reminder of how untruthful that actually is through a kinetic juncture of excessive decadence as the residents of a hierarchic high-rise collectively erupt into chaos.
The high-rise, a microcosm of an affluent society, has it all – from swimming pools and squash courts to a 15th floor super-market. Divided by class and status, we find the upper class on the top floors, with the architect of the entire complex in the penthouse – fitted with a large and flourished garden, where he also has a horse of course. Further down is the middle-class, the working men and women who partake in the excess of the tenants above, but are never counted as one of them. At the bottom we find the families who, albeit not penniless, struggle with constant power-failures, deterioration and injustice.
When chaos finally breaks loose, and previous boundaries and restrictions are pushed aside, the entire complex is transformed into a dystopian hell-house of sex, violence and even more excess. Endless parties fuelled by drugs and blood take up large portions of the housings, and the classes mash together with each other and themselves. While the superfluous parallels to 2014’s Snowpiercer are obvious, High-Rise is a whole different beast, both in its structure and presentation, as well as its themes. In the former we are firmly positioned in the back of the hierarchic train with the poor – the truly poor – whereas High-Rise allows us a voyeuristic glimpse at the upper classes early on, and when it explodes, it is not a audacious rebellion, but a dive into pure anarchy.
I’ll claim no authority on the sociopolitical climate in 1970’s UK, but the obvious political statements made in the movie are sadly timeless. Economic imbalance and injustice, and our collective inability to find a decent solution to it, can resonate with anyone who reads Ballard’s novel or sees Wheatley’s adaptation. Whenever there are fictitious stories of metaphysical hierarchies, it automatically invites examinations through different philosophies and allegorical ladders, be it Wittgenstein’s climb of knowledge and understanding or Plato’s of love. It is, however, another ladder that feels most appropriate in the case of High-Rise, and that is the allegory preached by Petyr Baelish in Game of Thrones – chaos isn’t a pit, chaos is a ladder.
It is with this ladder of chaos that the lower classes hope to find a way to the top, a way free from their unfortunate fates. It is also through this idea we can fully understand Tom Hiddleston’s character, Laing’s role in the movie. Described as “an advanced species in the neutral atmosphere,” Laing is a man that can adapt and find contentment in any situation, and thus, his distant and apparent indifferent attitude toward the breakdown positions him as a very dangerous man, perhaps the most dangerous; not necessarily in this complex – this anarchy – but in society in general. For a man who is not only willing, but also capable, of standing idly by as society crumbles is a man you cannot really know, and a man you cannot trust.
It is, however, the films form and production design I’m most stricken by. It is an exercise in how form can compliment the content, and this is rooted in every aspect of the films aesthetics; from the impeccable production design by Mark Tildesley (28 Days Later, Sunshine) and the sophisticated cinematography of Laurie Rose (Kill List, Sightseers) – who manages to visualise the heavy degradation through framing and compositions – and the spellbinding music by the always brilliant Clint Mansell. All elements come together to form an endlessly stylish and kitchy tone. The color pallet is sharp and vivid, and montages accompanied by diegetic music, where Abba is appropriated by classical orchestras, vibrant and euphoric. Tom Hiddleston’s apathetic demeanour is a stark contrast to the rest of the cast and characters, and the film in general, so that his presence is always intense and palpable. His monotonous, but fashionable, suit also works in tandem with a huge paradox in the film; the paradox that, in all this excess and consumption, the world at large feels entirely affectless. The high-rise’s exteriors a bare brick that looms large over a vast nothingness; Laing’s work-place nondescript and anonymous; and the skyline a blank ever-changing color-wheel.
Excess, excess, excess, all is excess. Sadly, this is also prominent in the films run-time, as there is a few moments towards the end that feels entirely aimless. There’s an argument to be made that it is so to underline the films crucial themes, but I couldn’t help but feel it would’ve worked much better with a few minutes cut away.
Luckily, it doesn’t ruin the overall experience, and High-Rise is an immediate recommendation, as it is not only a fascinating commentary on class and economy, but also a stylish, immensely entertaining movie with more than one moment of pure cinema – where sound, picture, dialogue and performances come together to form a flourish of catharsis and joy.