I went into High Rise expecting an extremely weird, blackly comic tale of social decay, and got exactly what I wished for – and then some. Ben Wheatley’s biggest film to date, and an adaptation of JG Ballard’s famous novel, High Rise has been receiving plenty of internet buzz, yet I wonder if this film is at all palatable for mainstream audiences. It begins on as strange and intriguing a note as the book does, as Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston, pitch perfect in the role) sits on his balcony contemplating the events of the past three months, while eating a dog. Social collapse on a near apocalyptic level has occurred, and we are flung from the brief in media res opening to find out what on earth happened.
Laing is an inhabitant of the 25th floor of the high rise, beginning a new life in his apartment in the wake of the death of his sister. A slippery character from the outset, keen on just ‘fitting in’ and getting on with his life as a physiologist – his job appearing as an early reminder of humanity’s capacity for brutality, as he splits a mans skull in half with a hammer. This brutality becomes increasingly dominant as the film goes on, and the high-rise tower’s amenities one-by-one begin to fail. The inhabitants turn feral and split into tribes, divided by their previous distinctions of class.
The apartment block is intended to be a self-contained society, thought up by the appropriately named ‘Royal’ (Jeremy Irons), also commonly referred to as ‘The Architect’. Royal sees the tower as an object of change, the utopian ideal of a self-sustaining, self-inclusive tower block – an ideal that quickly, and catastrophically collapses. But more on that in a minute. The society of the high-rise plays out like a vertical version of Snowpiercer, with the spectrum of class status starting with the lower classes on the lower floors, and the upper classes at the top. The upper classes appear as a comic parody of conservatism, with parties that involve practically ancient dress, and a ludicrous desire for a return to the past as embodied by Royal’s wife and her horse. The lower classes are a bit more rowdy, but far more relatable, and in this respect, the politics of Ben Wheatley’s insane work become a little more clear.
There is a hypnotic beauty to the first half of the film, playing out like a utopian dream of the 70s – bright colours, moustaches and flared clothing appear in abundance. All the while, High Rise is brilliantly and beautifully scored by Clint Mansell, who expertly plays up the 70s party music, the class tension and the film’s initial utopian wonder. The camera is steady, the editing is slow and deliberate, with sporadic interruptions – such as a wonderful and brief dream sequence in which Laing dances with some air hostesses. The turning point of the film is equally elegant, in which an inhabitant of the high-rise leaps, or rather soars to their death amongst a montage of dancing and partying. From this point, the inhabitants really let themselves go. For the second half of the film, the camera goes handheld and the pace of the editing ramps up considerably. High Rise turns into a frenetic kaleidoscope of violence and class dispute, a point that Wheatley seems to really want the audience to be aware of, considering the use of an actual kaleidoscope during a sequence towards the end.
This isn’t to say there is an absolute divided to the two halves of the film – the destabilisation of the high-rise is something that takes time, taking cues from William Goldman’s Lord of the Flies in an examination of what modern humans do when the power goes out.
All this said, High Rise isn’t for everyone. While it’s certainly well filmed and fantastically conceived, Wheatley and writer Amy Jump leave a lot to the viewer to piece together, and the film indulges in some darkly comic unpleasantness for well over half of its running time. By the time the film is over, I imagine most people will find themselves either confused or somewhat disturbed by what they’ve just bore witness to. Personally however, I found High Rise to be a darkly hilarious, well scripted and refreshingly challenging film that certainly needs to be watched more than once.