“High-Rise” Movie Review


     After viewing director Ben Wheatley’s “High Rise”, you’re likely to come away wondering what exactly it is you have just experienced.  Either you have witnessed something on the higher side of sheer brilliance, or perhaps the film will simply digest like a painful gut bomb of which you will hopefully rid yourself of by the next morning.  Based on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name, the film explores the multi class tenancy of a new ultra modern apartment building which aims to provide all of the conveniences necessary for life without the need to actually leave the building.  Wheatley and his screenwriter, Amy Jump, apparently had their work cut out for them, as Ballard’s vision was seen as one that would be particularly difficult to play out on screen.  And that may be the film’s underlying problem.  When things get out of control in the second hour, the scenery gets messy and becomes severely disjointed, even bordering on unwatchable at times.

     The first hour or so sets up the premise, doing so with the exquisite detail of an artist at the top of his game.  The building itself is all concrete and sits alone within a massive white concrete parking lot, surrounded in the distance by other high rises still under construction.  As is the case with any building of this kind, the upper floors typically represent the upper class, while the lower floors are less expensive and typically occupied by people who wouldn’t be welcome within the high society which occupies the penthouse levels.  The building boasts several indoor swimming pools, a gym, and even a supermarket, all of which is the vision of an architect named Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives on the top floor with a spread that would make Donald Trump envious.  Some of the tenants talk about the fact they have no car, because it never becomes necessary to leave.  This new high rise is a one stop shop where people have virtually everything they need, or so they think.

     The interior designs of the apartments certainly reflect the style of the 1970s, but the bizarre characters within these walls will likely remind you of something out of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil” and will make you wonder why anyone would want to live here in the first place.  It doesn’t take long for Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston) to meet his new neighbors shortly after he begins to move into his apartment, all of which are as unique as they are oddball.  Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her son Toby (Louis Suc) live directly above, constantly bothered by documentary filmmaker and resident hothead Wilder (Luke Evans), who seems to explore each and every floor in the building while leaving his very pregnant wife, Helen (Elizabeth Moss) alone at home.  These initial scenes establish the life within and does so in much the same way you would see a director like Wes Anderson accomplish this with vibrant color, carefully choreographed tracking shots, and astounding detail within each widescreen composition.  

     Laing seems to love the routine the new building has afforded him, as we observe him going to the market and purchasing various items for home improvement, going to the gym, and attending various get togethers with the residents.  His standing seems to fall right in the middle.  He’s not exactly rich and doesn’t seem to do well within the social situations created by those in the upper crust, and his profession means he will always have an affection for those in need.  There comes a point about half way in where every scene begins to get weirder and weirder.  It’s almost indescribable.  Power outages begin to become a significant factor in how people behave, as it is assumed by the people in the lower levels that those at the top are not suffering from these annoyances.  To put it simply, chaos ensues and all out war occurs between the haves and the have nots, who fight over territory, loot and vandalize the building, and commit countless nefarious acts against one another.  It’s as if one moment we’re getting a nostalgic taste of how modern life was viewed in the mid 1970s, but then all hell breaks loose in a way that would make you think you’re watching a dystopian thriller.  But it’s not meant to be.

     “High Rise” devolves quickly into a kaleidoscopic mess of ultra violent imagery and sexually charged orgies which play on screen mostly as a non plot driven montage.  It’s so strange and off the chart that these scenes are accompanied by covers of Abba songs, which somehow made me conjure up memories of “Mama Mia” while scenes of “Eyes Wide Shut” style group sex parties flash on screen.  And none of it makes sense either.  For the last thirty or so minutes, I kept wondering why these people wouldn’t just simply leave the building.  They, after all, were not locked in, even though the building does resemble what today would be considered to be prison like.  

     Perhaps the building serves as a metaphor for the things in life we think we can’t do without, especially when it comes to technology which is a theme the film hits on several times.  But I also think there has to be a better way to present the material in what needed to be a more cohesive narrative.  Or maybe Wheatley knew exactly what he was doing when he actually has one of the characters view the mayhem through a kaleidoscope, which is an extremely accurate representation of what this film eventually becomes.  A lot of scenes that don’t fit together and make no sense. It’s like the cinematic equivalent of splattering paint on a canvas and calling it art.  But, as we know, many people view art in different ways.  “High Rise” isn’t the sort of film that will appeal to mainstream audiences, and I don’t think the filmmakers here intended it to be.  Essentially, the film mimics the characters on screen with a divisive quality sure to lead to plenty of disagreement among fellow cinephiles.  GRADE: C-