This week I had the opportunity to participate in the 25th Annual Florida Film Festival. If you do not already know I am very picky about what I see, avoiding romance, dramas, some comedies, remakes, and reboots. None of the available selection at the Festival grabbed my attention and I was very cautious lest I pick a movie I end up regretting. High-Rise (HR) was one I really wanted to see since it was in post-production. In doing research on J.G. Ballard’s book of the same name I was captivated and the trailers made it all the more appealing. With the US release date in flux, the Festival was my only option. Was HR worth admission or should I have seen Jungle Book instead?
To move on from a death in the family Laing, played by Tom Hiddleston, purchased an apartment at a new high-rise, populated by all manner of people. Soon, the residents find themselves unable to abandon the many conveyances and their shared environment begins to change from the inside out.
HR is a satirical examination of the world in the context of an apartment building. It reminds me a lot of Bioshock where the city of Rapture was an objectivist paradise that could not sustain itself in the long term. The titular high-rise is an isolated culture with a fully stocked supermarket, gym, pool, and spa. The residents come to depend on it so much they forget their lives outside. With nothing to break up the monotony within the tower, conflicts, hostilities, and drama become life itself.
As a form of competition the residents throw extravagant parties, using up the available food, alcohol, and electricity. It is not long before resources become scarce and the once homogenous building begins to take sides. The high-rise becomes a microcosm of society with the floors representing classes; the rich live on the upper levels, middle at the center, and the lower close to the ground. There is even a monarch or god figure in the form of Jeremy Iron’s character Royal. Each section struggles for resources to the point of violence and a rapid breakdown of civility.
The risk of pretention was strong. HR could have taken the route of Hunger Games or Elysium by holding a critical eye to class warfare, but it is more transcendent. The conflict is a result of the story’s look at the effects of modern life on human nature. Money, electricity, and convenience have become the essentials of our everyday lives, the concept of subsistence replaced by consumerism. HR looks at what happens when we go too far relying on convenience. Once it is gone we devolve into a state reminiscent of cavemen in our struggle to survive. The film also acknowledges the diversity of personality and that the resurgence of a class system in a homogenous environment is the result of who we are as people. Wilder is an agitator because he does not like being poor and is furiously jealous of the upper floors. Those above are arrogant and pompous because they achieved success and forgot what it means to struggle in the lower class.
While HR is very good overall, the issues cannot be ignored. Director Ben Wheatley is known for his surreal visuals. Kill List was the only one of his I saw and I was taken aback by the unconventional approach to suspense. At the same time, I could also tell what was happening. With HR, the eccentricity hurt the storytelling; there were a lot of moving parts that sometimes failed to work with one another. Little snippets of irrelevant scenes would pop in during other scene for seemingly no reason, interrupting the flow. Why it was included I could not figure out as the scene continued.
HR is also a thick beast of a movie that shows you everything and tells you nothing in the form of montages. It relies so heavily on visuals (you know, like a movie) that you may have to watch it a second time to fully digest what was going on. At times I could not divine why anything was happening because perhaps I missed it in a conversation between characters or another montage. My knowledge of the book helped me along, but for the average moviegoer, this is a problem.
The entire cast was fantastic. Hiddleston carried the whole thing and he was even better when on screen with Irons. Luke Evans really shined as Wilder, a man so obsessed with being happy and supporting his family he was unaware of the irony in his conflict against the upper floors. Elizabeth Moss and Sienna Miller did well in their supporting roles, while James Purefoy and huge chuck of the minor cast kept up the pace.
High-Rise is a unique satire that takes the genre and applies a beautiful artistic aesthetic. It is the kind of movie that will make you think as you ogle at the dreamlike visuals and provocative writing, punctuated by a retro synth soundtrack. Though understanding what it is trying to say takes time, High-Rise is worth the trouble. If it gets a wider release, do not hesitate to buy a ticket.