High-Rise starts with voice-over by Tom Hiddleston’s Dr. Robert Laing. He is discussing, rather matter-of-factly, the current conditions inside his monolithic apartment complex. His conclusion, as he picks through mounds of rubbish and roasts a dog’s leg on a spit, is that he has fully adapted to this new way of life and quite enjoys the state of things. We, as the audience, get a sense that something terrible must have occurred. We are left wondering what terrible series of events could have led to such condition as the film flashes back to Laing’s first days at the new and revolutionary self-contained tower.
Director Ben Wheatly’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name is set during the ’70’s, presumably because that is when the book was originally released. The costume and set designers took that setting as an opportunity to really play around in that decade. Some sets are ostentatious with shag carpet and leather couches while others are stark with brownish-grey concrete; others have that lived-in homeliness that only burnt oranges and yellow can provide. Lounge suits and Nehru jackets also abound.
The apartment building is ultra-modern and billed as a revolution in living. There is an indoor pool, supermarket, super-sophisticated trash disposal system and room for enough people that it can contain multiple communities and social classes. Not long after moving in, the cracks begin to show both in the building and the social structure. I was immediately reminded of Victor Gruen’s original intentions in designing the shopping mall, and just as quickly, the sad state most of these indoor malls are in today. These massive, enclosed edifices of concrete and steel were intended to be community centers that housed everything people might need including doctors offices, post offices, and exercise facilities as well as stores.
Unlike Gruen’s shopping malls, which have been abandoned, torn down, or transformed into bastions of consumerism, nobody in High-Rise seems to want to leave, no matter how bad things get. The decay of the building and resultant transformation of the society inside is insidious and just slow enough that nobody seems to notice, even as hallways become clogged with garbage, people take to barricading their doors, and become forced to eat household pets to survive. The occasional parties become drunken debaucherous revels that would make Greek bacchanals look like sabbath morning service. Casual sexual dalliances become riotous orgies that seem to never end. The major conceit of High-Rise is that, despite all of these problems, nobody can bring themselves to leave. It plays out much like the family that refuses to leave the haunted house. However, the aprtment building in High-Rise never rises to much more than a setting, albeit a drastically transforming and transformative setting.
In addition to Tom Hiddleston, we are privileged to see Elizabeth Moss, Luke Evans, James Purefoy, Sienna Miller, and Jeremy Irons. Irons is particularly well cast as the eccentric architect, constantly tinkering to try to figure-out just where he went wrong in his designs. With its subject matter, High-Rise could be a film that is difficult to watch and at times it teeters precariously on that tight-rope. It’s a testament to everyone involved that it remains as entertaining as it does. However, I would imagine that it is the tone and detail of Ballard’s source material that makes the film as much fun as it is. There are many more things that I could say about High-Rise, including its social commentary on the existence, role, and necessity of class-systems, as well as how societal norms and mores adapt during times of stress. But, I think to get Wheatly’s views on these, you could do no better than to watch this movie.