"For all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high rise, ready to move forward and explore life. How? He had not yet decided."
If you look at the comments section for the trailer to Ben Wheatley’s latest film ‘High Rise’ you will find a lot of people labelling the film as a ‘vertical Snowpiercer’. Now, ‘Snowpiercer’ is a very good film and ‘High Rise’ is somewhat similar in the sense that they both involve class war within an enclosed allegorical society. However ‘Snowpiercer’ gave us a vision of the future by looking into the future, what ‘High Rise’ does is even more ingenious. It provides us with a vision of the future by looking into the past.
In 1975 London a young doctor called Robert Laing (Tom Hiddlestone) takes up residence in a luxurious high rise tower block. While there he befriends the building’s mysterious architect (Jeremy Irons), his devoted aide Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and a documentary filmmaker (Luke Evans). The isolated community eventually becomes a world of divided loyalties and violent rivalries.
People have been trying to adapt the J.G Ballard novel to the big screen for decades, going as far back to just a few years after the initial publication in 1975. But like so many novels it was deemed to be ‘unfilmable’ and one by one each attempted project was abandoned. Until now when Ben Wheatley (known for ‘A Field in England’ and ‘Kill List’, neither of which I have seen, though I now plan to) has created a science fiction thriller filled with dark comedy and an unnerving sense of horror.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg as ultimately ‘High Rise’ is a difficult film to pin down to one specific genre. It’s a horror movie, a dark comedy, a biting social satire and a violent character study. The only thing that I can really compare it to is Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and like that masterpiece it feels disturbingly relevant to today’s society. When the novel was published just a few years before the Winter of Discontent, where rotting garbage would pile up on the streets of Britain and the infrastructure of our industry nearly collapsed, what followed in the subsequent decade were years of class conflict as Thatcher’s government crushed its opposition. Ballard’s novel seemed to foresee all of this, and captured it in a microcosm of a tower block.
‘High Rise’ makes the wise decision to stay firmly planted within the 1970s, at least on an aesthetic level. The aesthetics are somewhat beautiful, from the lavish and aristocratic world that the upper class are shown to inhabit from the overall slickness of the building’s concept, cinematographer Laurie Rose does an excellent job at portraying both. For its themes however it remains utterly compelling and pertinent. Wheatley captures a sense of ironic tragedy as the people of the tower block hope to get a glimpse of the sleek and friendly future only to devolve into a more primal being, where their society is ruled by factions of violent tribes. It establishes the perimeters of this modernised world almost as well as it subsequently tears them down. It launches itself into apocalyptic carnage in an almost gleeful fashion.
I may have compared it to ‘A Clockwork Orange’ but I also found myself comparing the film to another Kubrick classic ‘The Shining’ as the architecture of the building is given an eerie calmness, as if the structure itself is what triggers the onset of chaos and destruction. Once Laing arrives the buildings infrastructure begins to crumble, the lifts malfunction and the lights flicker, almost as if the building itself imposes this pandemonium upon its inhabitants.
Those inhabitants include the likes of Tom Hiddlestone, who is superb as Laing. While it’s easy to think of him as an innocent bystander there’s a sinister edge to his performance that makes you think otherwise and continue to guess throughout the film as you can’t quite read him. Even more of an enigma is Jeremy Irons as the architect, a man who has both structurally and emotionally, inadvertently designed his own downfall. Sienna Miller and Luke Evans are also valuable players within the society, and both remain wonderfully elusive.
Make no mistake though, when this film needs to it goes (for lack of a better term) completely batshit crazy. The movie has such a sense of energy and unpredictability to it that even amid the disturbing and violent imagery you can’t tear yourself away from it. The way Wheatley composes each image only makes it more engrossing. It’s like a bad LSD trip, but in the best possible way. Or to put it another way, Alex DeLarge would feel right at home in this tower block.
Thrilling, repulsive and almost frighteningly insightful.