Taking place nearly entirely in a large apartment complex, the lower classes confined to the first floor engage in civil war with the upper classes at the top. Given that synopsis, you’d be forgiven for making comparisons of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise to Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, where the lower classes at the back of a train engage in civil war with the upper classes at the front. However, where Snowpiercer played this metaphor obviously to focus on delivering pulp thrills, High-Rise is considerably more abstract. While its visuals are often indelible and its interpretation debatable, on a narrative and character level, its completely incoherent.
While the class warfare angle is played up, perhaps the more interesting angle is its commentary on isolationism. As some critics have pointed out, High-Rise is based on a British novel from the 1970s; the high-rise maybe isn’t meant to be a model of society, but rather of a particular island nation? When the characters are no longer willing to leave the high-rise to interact with the outside world, supplies vanish, power is shut off, and anarchy ensues. The lower class get it first, but the upper class suffer soon after, using their brief head start on the rest of the building to host lavish parties (aristocratic wigs make an appearance at one point), with an emphasis on orgies because why not I guess. Civil war is played up, but its based on promises not being kept to the lower class; “We pay the same fees” implies a shot directed at communism, but perhaps its meant to be read as “We take the same risks”.
The meaning behind the movie (and the book its based on, I’m sure) is interesting in its specificity, and maybe plays better to a British audience. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the behaviour of the individual characters is incomprehensible. The broadstrokes come across fine, but its difficult to get invested when the people on screen act to strictly serve plot functions rather than of anything resembling their own volition. Tom Hiddleston’s psychiatrist is a nonentity despite taking up the majority of the screen time, while Jeremy Irons’ top-of-the-food-chain architect never feels fully formed. As a leader who starts a chain of events that he cannot stop while sitting in his crumbling tower, he plays it awfully coy. Luke Evans comes across best as working-man Wilder, oozing charisma until the plot decides to chew him up and spit him back out in the final third. The women of the movie, despite being given a somewhat empowering moment at the end, get it the worst; Sienna Miller’s plot function is nebulous, although at least she gets one fantastic highlights-reel moment involving a steak. Elizabeth Moss’ presence as Wilder’s pregnant wide Helen is more confusing. Perhaps her role unlocks this whole movie, but as it stands, she seems incredibly wasted.
High-Rise isn’t without immediate pleasures though. It’s garbage-strewn halls in the latter half are a visual treat, even if the day-to-day of it all is a mystery, a sort of fuck-it-I-guess dystopia. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there are a few laughs to be had at the absurdity of it all. It has perhaps the most ABBA references of any film this side of Mamma Mia. But it can’t help but feel alienating when it completely ignores the human side of it. Academically, High-Rise is maybe interesting. As an absorbing piece of fiction, it falls quite flat.
High Rise (2016)
Dir. Ben Wheatley
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Irons
Rotten Tomatoes (63%)