Spying on his mother from the vantage of the twenty-sixth floor balcony, a young boy named Toby (Louis Suc) is spotted by Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) from the balcony below. Laing asks what Toby can see through the kaleidoscope he has in his hands. Toby replies, “the future”.
This seemingly insignificant moment may be the central pivot point of Ben Wheatley’s latest film, adapted from J.G. Ballard’s seminal 70’s novel by Amy Jump. Wheatley settles quite sensibly with a period setting, quickly conjuring the same sense of temporal unease that trademarks much of Ballard’s fiction. The book and the film have both been labelled ‘sci-fi’ while neither fulfil the usual expectations of the genre. Ballard operated most vividly in theorised social experiments, often warping his present to reflect fears of who we are and where we’re headed. Wheatley’s film achieves the same thing. The past, present and future slide through one another like the images in Toby’s kaleidoscope.
That idea extends to the shape and journey of the film itself. We are introduced to Hiddleston’s character (and bracketing narrator) first and foremost, but he is not the lead per se. Nobody is. This is an ensemble piece in the truest sense. Characters meet briefly, interact (often sexually) and slip on past one another, as though taking part in an elaborate dance step outside of their understanding. The film’s editing feels similarly governed by a set of rules we’ve not been made privy to; for a long while High-Rise feels as though it is one giant two-hour montage, images colliding and separating in a cycle designed to show us the future.
And what a heady, gaudy, crass collection of images we’re treated to. The story concerns the inhabitants of a then state-of-the-art high-rise, one of five constructed around a lake by reclusive architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Laing moves into one of its brutalist compartments and bares witness to a rise in anarchy between floors as a class system establishes itself; the pretentious excess of the top floors vying with the relative poverty and resentment of the exploited lower floors. Caught in the middle, Laing tries his best to seclude himself as the building descends into tribal anarchy.
To begin with this manifests in the form of competitive hedonism, as the different classes battle for which can throw the better parties. But the building’s first fatalities (both human and canine) trigger an escalation. Power failures and broken amenities only act as stressors. People stop going to work. The building circles itself in a sea of stuffed bin liners and begins to devour itself.
Villified the most in all of this is Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a burly presence from the ground floor who neglects his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) to both instigate frictions and document them on camera. A filmmaker within the film, Wilder is treated with disdain for attempting to climb out of his social set, his ascent of the building punishing him with all manner of bruises. Sienna Miller’s Charlotte Melville slides in and out of the narrative as the neighbour with whom Laing initially has an affair. Like many she becomes rather lost in the chaos of primitive tribal excursions to pillage the dwindling supermarket.
High-Rise often feels chaotic, but intentionally so. Wheatley’s frequent director of photography Laurie Rose works wonders lighting and framing the relentlessly varied and arresting images paraded before the viewer. Kubrick has been mentioned a few times when describing this film, but while the presentation is always deliberate, the method feels more organic and open to variation. Witness, for instance, a frenzied scuffle in the aforementioned supermarket in the middle of the film which is captured in one sustained handheld shot. It’s breathtaking. Contrast this with the music video glamour of Laing’s earlier scenes dancing with a gaggle of stewardesses, and the film’s variety of expression becomes clear.
The effect is a little nauseating, but pleasingly so. A skyscraping structure like the one depicted here contains hundreds of lives and therefore hundreds of stories each with their own context and palette. High-Rise takes down the divides and mingles them all together. In presentation it feels like film as collage. Some elements spark off of one another, others sit uncomfortably side by side. But when they do feel uncomfortable that is almost always the desired effect.
It is a little on the nose at times. Helen’s chain-smoking and drinking while heavily pregnant, for instance, is rubbed in the audience’s face as often as possible; a heavy-handed nod to both her social status and the irony of ignorance. Ballard’s dialogue sits awkwardly in some of the characters’ mouths also. Jump’s screenplay plays wisely with the text – adding here, subtracting there – but occasionally what sounded great on paper translates less confidently. On balance High-Rise gets away with it, though a last-minute Thatcher soundbite feels dreadfully misplaced; hobbling what is essentially a timeless parable with specificity.
An unusual and caustic film (one which boasts a fantastic soundtrack; see Portishead’s cover of ‘S.O.S’ by ABBA), audience members expecting conventional narrative traits such as resolution might find the film’s trajectory a little aimless. Characters disappear wholesale. Questions go unanswered. That is the nature of the piece. Wheatley is presenting us a hemmed-in vision of society reshaping itself. The end game is constantly mutating. We’re left with Laing, embracing a new social dynamic as the neighbouring buildings prepare to begin their own violent transformations.