Welcome to a future that never was. A cold, vision of Utopian 70s London, set within the Brutalist architecture of a concrete symbol of modernity. Based on the JG Ballad novel of the same title, enigmatic director Ben Wheately brings us a vision of a self contained Utopia turned against itself.
Starting with a rather apocalyptic vision of society in chaos, High Rise flashes back three months to when the rather self contained Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), moves into a unit in a 40 story tower block on the outskirts of London. The high-rise offers all the modern conveniences of shopping and recreation within the complex. Laing soon notices that there is a hierarchical structure to the tower block, despite architect Royal’s (Jeremy Irons) intent for it to be an egalitarian paradise. With a spate of electrical problems in the block, the social structure soon breaks down, with the upper floors pitted against the lower floors, as the compete for resources and control.
From the cold modernist visuals of Kubric, to the orgiastic revelry of Ken Russel, Wheatley demonstrates he is standing on the shoulders of giants by proudly showing his very British influences. The result is yet another piece of wonderful English eccentricity, as High Rise draws from a deep well of weird. Although comparatively straight forward by the standard of his previous A Field In England, High-Rise is still a challenging piece of film, requiring the attention and interpretation of the audience to draw meaning from it. At times it feels more successful than others in this regard, as the combining of both a cryptic auteur and author leads to the films finer points becoming indecipherable.
It’s broad strokes are very clear though. That beneath the thin veneer of society lies chaos, brutality and anarchy. Nor is this often helped by the social structures that we set to impose order, as they are often just beneficial to a few. As such the tower degenerates into a giant political satire (hardly surprising with an architect named Royal), of the “haves” versus the “have nots”, or the aristocracy versus the mob (as symbolised by Wilder). It’s a metaphor Wheatley may lay on a little thick at times, such as the Sun Court themed costume party for the upper floors, but with such stunning visuals he earns a lot of leeway.
An interesting piece of retro-futurism, but its visuals are far stronger than its script. High Rise never quiet reaches the heights to which it strives, but it is a beautiful facade with solid foundations.