“Sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.”
Ben Wheatley’s High Rise opens on a nightmare vision of the future.
We see Tom Hiddleston navigating an apocalyptic wasteland of an apartment complex, seeming perfectly content with himself as he scavenges for food. Finding none, he happily decides to eat his own dog. This isn’t another tired spin on the same old dystopian future, though. Based on J. G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, Wheatley chooses not to update the material, but instead sets his film in the thick of 1970s London. As such, the above quote from Ballard’s book echoes down through all aspects of Wheatley’s film. Their future may have looked bleak, High Rise says, but guess what? We’re living in that future today.
Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston) is the newest resident of a luxurious new apartment complex. His apartment sits on the 25th floor, firmly in the middle of a class spectrum that sees the rich living in the top floor suites, while the poorer families live on the lower floors, in the shadow of the complex’s overhanging penthouses. The building’s architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons), sees his creation as a social experiment on a grand scale, an arcology that would cater to a tenant’s every need. Groceries, schooling, exercise, nightlife; it’s all here. What begins with the noblest intentions, though, quickly degenerates into class warfare between the haves — actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory) and Royal’s lackey Pangbourne (James Purefoy) — and the have nots — documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his very pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss).
High Rise has such a simple premise that it’d be easy for a filmmaker to follow the class warfare story from a standard A > B > C trajectory. You can already picture that film in your head. (I bet the film you’re thinking of is In Time.) Ben Wheatley refuses to do things the easy way, though, and instead of feeding his audience one spoonful of plot at a time, he fills in the cracks of the film’s world with telling details that convey the story just as well. Laing spends much of the film apathetic in the fight between rich and poor, and illustrates this not by aligning himself with one side over the other, but by painting his apartment a neutral shade of gray. He finds his own middle ground in the hellscape raging on out his front door, going so far as to even literally fight someone over a can of paint; fighting for his right to remain neutral. Elsewhere, the Che Guevara poster hanging in Wilder’s bedroom tells us everything we need to know about him.
Early on, Royal shows Laing the blueprints for his high-rise complex, which takes the shape of an open hand; a central courtyard surrounded by five pillars all curling inward. He never explicitly states it, but it doesn’t take an architect to realize that the sloping upper floors cast a shadow over the lower floors, depriving them of a little bit of sunlight every single day. Jeremy Irons plays Royal too sympathetic to be this outwardly malicious, so he comes across as a mad scientist not realizing the consequences of his actions until it’s too late. The residents notice the issue right away, of course. Those living on top clearly don’t care. And why would they, when they get the benefit of an ornate rooftop garden with horses and dogs and unobstructed access to the sun?
In fact, one of the boldest choices in this story is the sheer hostility with which the rich treat the poor. After an incident where Wilder leads a gaggle of children to crash a pool party held by the elites, the elites strike back by brazenly hoarding all the food in the building’s supermarket, which leads to riots and destruction. As embodied by Luke Evans’ Wilder, all the poor want is their fair share, but that attitude leads to the rich conspiring on ways to keep them from getting it. It seems a bit heavy-handed that this should lead to the complete collapse of the high-rise’s social order so quickly, but then the high-rise itself becomes a microcosm of humanity. (And as a hand-shaped complex made of concrete and steel, it is literally a heavy hand.) The story is all allegory, and blunt though it may be, it gets the point across.
Again, in the more Hollywood version of High Rise, Laing would be the middle class crusader fighting for the little guy. That isn’t what Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump have in mind, though. The way Tom Hiddleston plays him, Laing is a bit of a blank slate, living just a tad too much in his own head to fully engage with his surroundings. He’s simply out to keep his share of the pie and not rock the boat. If things go well, so much the better. Hiddleston is pretty great in the role, very clinical and calculating, a perfect foil for the pure id driving everyone around him.
Perhaps the most obvious comparison to make here would be to Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, with the titular train’s individual cars separating each class of people. Or maybe a better comparison might be to Dredd, in which a towering apartment complex becomes an urban hellscape thanks in no small part to destructive class warfare and a thriving drug trade.
Personally, I would split the difference and say High Rise falls more in line with the high concept social fiction of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Modernity brings with it amazing wonders of science, but the one thing threatening to tear the whole thing down is our basic human nature, full of baffling leaps in judgement and a “fuck-you-got-mine” attitude. While we ought to be working together for the betterment of all, avarice is a powerful personal motivator that humanity can’t seem to shake. Many of the residents in High Rise don’t notice the entropy going on all around them. Some actually seem to prefer it.
The bluntness of the film’s message does become tedious after a while, though. By the end, it’s subtext becomes text as characters straight up address issues of capitalism, colonialism, and England’s role in society at large. J. G. Ballard’s novel may be forty years old, but the issues its characters face have not gone away. Arguably, they’ve only become more pronounced with time. But while High Rise is a very distinctly British film, Ben Wheatley uses it to tell a parable that has a hard lesson for us all: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Now in limited theatrical release, and available On Demand.Liked This? Share It!