J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise was, like Crash (which inspired the Cronenberg film, not the one that won the Oscar), an exploration of the new frontiers in human psychology brought on by an increasingly technologically-mediated world. In the hands of director Ben Wheatly, High-Rise becomes an impressionistic allegory for the collapse of late-stage capitalism. It presents itself obliquely, and will not yield up its metaphors easily to audiences more interested in catching a glimpse of Tom Hiddleston unclothed than in social commentary.
I almost wonder why Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump didn’t retitle the movie Skypiercer, since it treads much the same income-inequality-soaked ground as Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer. But instead of the lower and upper classes living at the back and front of a train, they reside on the literal lower and upper floors of a modernist forty-story apartment building on the outskirts of London. And while the building may come with all the amenities that the late 1970s can offer, the reality is somewhat less than advertised in the manual that Robert Laing (Hiddleston) finds when he moves into 2505.
The supermarket on the 15th floor may be more fully stocked than any in London, but the produce is shot through with mold and rot. There are recreation facilities, including a gym and a pool, on the 30th, but the children from the lower floor tend to get kicked out in favor of private events held by the residents of upper floors. Power cuts are a constant interruption.
The penthouse is occupied by the architect of the whole development, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). In a building slowly turning inwards and disconnecting from the outside world, Royal is more isolated and introverted than the rest. It’s his particular neoliberal hubris to even think he can design his way to a utopian community. It’s true in the real world too; Columbia, Maryland never degenerated into a dystopian nightmare like the high-rise does, it didn’t quite work out like Jim Rouse planned.
It’s not long after Laing moves in that things break down. A documentary filmmaker from the lower floors, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), leads first a rent strike and then a charge to retake the amenities for which he pays as much of a fee as those from the upper floors. Pangbourne (James Purefoy), from the top, leads his counter-charge to prove that his people can “throw a better party”. And the professionals in the middle just want to be left alone in peace to repaint their walls.
Wheatley captures the collapse of society with a series of impressionistic montages, forgoing even the attempt at a clear narrative. But then what clarity can we really expect from the end of the world? The chaos steadily mounts, and we can struggle to follow along or be left behind with the rest of the victims. Speaking of whom, without the action-flick tropes and styling of Snowpiercer, the violence that accompanies the downfall is far more brutal and disturbing.
And maybe it’s all just so disorienting that we just can’t take it all in at once, and we just have to choose one thing to focus on: the secretary upstairs (Sienna Miller), or Wilder’s pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss), or Wilder’s crusade, or Royal’s loss of control, or just what color Laing wants on these damned walls.
As the dust settles, Wheatley leaves us with a radio broadcast from Margaret Thatcher, decrying state control of capital and the harm it causes to political freedom. But, as we see in High-Rise, any sufficient concentration of capital amounts to the same thing. Putting capital into private hands isn’t magic. Just because there’s not a “government” setting rules doesn’t mean rules don’t get set, and the consequences can be every bit as catastrophic.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.