“High-Rise” is an intense and dark satire about societal living, set inside a towering building that contains not only condos but stores, schools and other amenities designed to make the whole thing self sustaining, a tower which has an unforeseen effect on its many inhabitants. Remarking on the class issues that permeate almost every society but of which the British are seemingly much more acutely aware and critical, and also serving as a commentary on the societal forces that keep us from devolving into tribe-based groups of marauders and murderers, this movie uses sex, violence and comedy to show us a world which we are seemingly constantly on the brink of becoming.
Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves in to a newly built high-rise, a luxury building that is hi-tech and on the cutting edge, and he only has to leave the building to go to work. He meets some of his neighbors and the building’s architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) and he learns quickly that the people on the very top floors live a little more comfortably than the folks who make less money and live on the lower floors. As The Architect, Royal promised everyone a building that would give them a better way to live, a newly realized community of people that will engender real change in the way people behave. But when Royal thought this was going to be a positive change, it turned out to be quite negative. Things like power outages throughout the building and a poorly stocked supermarket start to get to the inhabitants, and they become more rowdy, angrier at the situation and each other, and smoothly enough the people in the building stop going out and stay inside and stay in their groups and start fighting each other. Before it is all said and done, the whole building has descended into squalor and chaos, with the poorer folks trying to get to the top of the building, and the few people already at the top indulging in pure debauchery on every conceivable level.
“High-Rise” is both humorous and frightening, as there is alternatively something funny or something terrible around just about every corner, and our “everyman” lead in Dr. Laing doesn’t really handle the whole thing with aplomb. As a matter of fact, he is left in what appears to be a state of shock as he goes around the building, trying not to get himself killed as he gathers paint for his home and interacts with a small handful of his neighbors. He tries to keep living his life as if everything around him is fine and its not, and he appears insane for doing so, and maybe he is, because this internal, experimental society around him has crumbled and he just hangs out and keeps his head down.
By the the time the shit does hit the fan and everything has gone crazy, Ben Wheatley has turned this “Lord of the Flies for adults” tale into a version of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining” as remastered by Terry Gilliam, with just a hint of David Cronenberg (the main theme sounds like a riff on the theme for “Scanners,” another movie about dangerously insulated people, and there seems to be one direct shout out to Brian O’Blivion). To say there is a lot going on in “High-Rise” is an understatement, and it would take more than one viewing to get all the little subtleties and nuances, because on one initial viewing, it is more like being bludgeoned; there are a good amount of characters with different little relationships to each other and it is worth going back and seeing how everything really fits together.
There are themes of adultery, remorse, regret, lost hope, arrested development, loneliness, all the things that make up the human experience (actually the things that make up the worst parts of human experience) are represented in this microcosm of a society and “High-Rise” shows us what would happen if these became the dominant traits of our lives. Having actors like Hiddleston and Irons, as well as Luke Evans, Sienna Miller and more, really help to drive this stuff home. These are characters in a heightened situation, a kind of 1970s retro-future thing, a hinted at larger dystopia at play, and they play these roles properly, which is hard for some of them. Dr. Laing almost becomes catatonic to what’s happening around him, and this could have come across as “sleep walking” if portrayed by lesser actors, but Hiddleston makes this work. Evans’ character, one of the poorer residents of the building, has a pretty big arc that depends on his relationships to a number of characters in the story and it could have easily been an over the top and goofy role but he made it seem real and grounded. A well-case movie will go a long way to helping the story and this film is indeed cast very well, and everyone does great work.
This movie works as a thriller, as a dark comedy and even at times as a horror story. This is a world in which the architects’ of the society accounted for everything except for human nature, which took over and reduced everyone to more primal animalistic states, more dangerous and ill-equipped to survive than ever before. Advances in society become crutches for civility and when those crutches are taken away, watch society fall to its knees, thus says “High-Rise.”