HIGH-RISE (2015) is a British social-surrealist dystopian film based on the cult novel of the same name by JG Ballard. Fragmented and lurching to a diffused finish, nonetheless I found it utterly compelling and engaging. While I would have liked more clarity, particularly in the ending (where a Margaret Thatcher quote comes out of nowhere and doesn’t really apply), the movie’s solid performances, direction, and pure craziness got in my pores and stuck with me long after I finished it.
In HIGH-RISE, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston, nailing it) moves into a giant high-rise apartment building built by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Set in 1970s Britain, the building was conceived on a utopian concept that the building should provide everything its residents need, including a supermarket, school, gym, and pool. The upper classes live on the top floors, middle-class people like Laing and single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller) live in the middle floors, and lower-class people like Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) live at the bottom.
The building warps perception. Everybody living in the tower becomes so immersed in it they forget the outside world and see no reason to ever leave. The tower becomes their world. When the building starts failing due to excess demands on it and faulty design, resulting electricity shortages put pressure on the fragile social order by introducing scarcity. The rich believe they have an inherent right to all of the building’s services, while the lower classes, who pay the same service charges, believe they have an equal right to them.
The first power cut results in impromptu parties that unleash primitive impulses. The classes begin fighting between floors and act out against the building itself. Royal, the architect and owner, looks on it all as a grand social experiment, excited about humanity entering a new phase. Wilder, a brutish firebrand, sees the insanity inherent in the building and wants revolution. The rest of the residents normalize the degradation, acting in accordance with the conventions of their designated class even as everything falls apart.
As this is based on a JG Ballard story, Laing, our protagonist, is a passive observer in all this, rebelling against and aiding events in equal turn. He gets a taste of power telling a colleague who slighted him that he might have a brain tumor. He’s told by an admiring woman that he’s one of the building’s best amenities. Over time, he becomes at one with the building and its apocalyptic vision. The movie’s main concern isn’t a typical narrative but more its themes of utopia versus humanity, scarcity and class war, and the insanity inherent in a system that promises everything but puts classes at odds with each other over finite resources. As such, it functions as a nearly perfect allegory for Western societies.
Overall, again, it’s a somewhat diffused story without a particularly strong protagonist, but it’s a compelling, even fascinating, watch.