The tower itself is a pinnacle of engineering. Rising 40 stories into the air, it curves slightly inward, like a finger curling towards the palm, as do the other four towers currently being erected—like the concrete hand of a god.
The tower contains all of the world’s amenities for the residents: a supermarket, a recreational pool, a gym, a squash court, and so on. At the top, in the penthouse suite—which includes a large and expansive English garden, complete with a riding horse—lives the architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the man who designed these towers and the man who will never escape their fate.
Into this high-rise apartment complex enters Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a physiologist in a gray suit with a fixation on gray paint. Laing stumbles into this insulated world with a Lazarus-like daze. He has no wife, no child, and no friends to speak of. He just wants his own place, halfway up the high-rise, and will do whatever is necessary to acquire it.
The tower is divided economically, with the wealthy at the top and the poor down below. Yet, the high-rise is constituted mainly of tenants from the middle class—social climbers on their way up but always teetering on the brink of falling back down. Fall they can, and fall they do when the building’s construct force the tenants into apocalyptic roles. Overnight the bottom levels of the tower turn into Mad Max, while Sodom and Gomorrah rage on at the top. Laing is smack-dab in the middle and must choose between the two.
British director Ben Wheatley uses High-Rise as an allegory for the evils of unchecked capitalism and the strain it forces upon society. It is an apt movie for the 21st century, but the source material—J.G. Ballard’s 1975 sci-fi novel of the same name—invokes Thatcher-era England, almost to its own detriment. Regardless, some concepts are timeless, and Wheatley uses Ballard’s conceit to construct a world that is retro-futuristic. The dress, the color palette, the music, the exposed concrete, the shag carpeting, the heaps of trash—all of it is intrinsically 1970s. Yet, the tone is strictly post-apocalyptic.
But what does it say about a society when a 40-year-old allegory still rings true? The décor has changed slightly, but the players are the same. The game is still rigged, and the collapse is imminent. In a way, High-Rise shares the same morbid curiosity that Mad Men invoked. The setting may be history, but what we see is as relevant as the nightly news.
There is an old saying that nothing ages quicker than the past’s prediction of the future. While this is true, in the 21st century we are learning that nothing is more consistent than the past’s view of the present. High-Rise in 2016 is as macabre and repugnant, and in some ways enchanting, as it might have been in 1976. The only real difference is that there is no difference. The more things change…
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Written by Amy Jump
Based on the novel by J.G. Ballard
Produced by Jeremy Thomas
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy
Magnolia Pictures, Rated R, Running time 119 minutes, Premiered Sept. 13, 2015 at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 23, No. 40, “Top of the world.”
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