This could have been amazing. High-Rise is a perfectly made film, except that it is incoherent. Ultimately, it is tiring. Dr. Robert Laing just moved into an apartment of a new high-rise, and this high-rise is just about a self-sufficient world. The whole building is an allegory about class struggle, with the rich living on top.
Dr. Laing’s world is very impersonal. The walls are all quite dark and the apartment is stark and rather unpleasant in a modernist, brutalist kind of way. The cinematography is stunning, so I am not complaining at all, but the flat he lives in reminds you of the nightmarish world of Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), where people only really have numbers and everyone lives in a dystopian world that rubs you the wrong way. Laing quickly gets involved with the other inhabitants and meets Mr. Royal who lives on the top of the flat in a bright, happy place, at a complete distance from everything.
Ok, it becomes clear that the flat is like a human dystopia of class differences, with the poor living down below in the shadows and the king living on top. The visuals are all heavy with implied meanings. The story is based on the novel High-Rise by J.G. Ballard, who is better known for his environmental apocalypse novels. In any case, a writer with an unwaveringly depressing bibliography and a bleak outlook on humanity. As Hiddleston’s character says about the high-life: “It is prone to fits of mania, narcissism and power failure.”
Laing tries to find his way in the high-rise, but everyone is difficult to read. The higher classes dismiss him, but the king takes a liking to him. When the lower classes finally start to revolt, in a brilliant scene about a swimming pool and an army of children, Laing finds himself stuck in the middle. It is vaguely similar to Snowpiercer (2013), or that one might have been influenced by Ballard’s book.
It is all very grotesque. The stuff of economic inequality and national revolutions is reenacted in the way of construction errors in the building and birthday parties that lose control. The rich all live in well-lighted apartments and act bored and selfish, while the poor are passionate but dwell in darkness.
Technically, this is a brilliant film, a delight to see. The compositions are beautiful and the production design is of the highest quality, the scenes are all fresh and involving, the lighting and music are handled with great care and awareness about their effects. Tom Hiddleston is a charismatic leading actor and the secondary roles by Sienna Miller as a social climber who is stuck and Jeremy Irons as the distant ruler are filled in very well. So, the film is worth seeing simply for the quality of the filmmaking.
But it does feel long, and it is all a bit abstract and removed from real experiences. It’s the kind of movie that you have to grant patience, let it indulge itself. Much of the strangeness, especially the editing, is simply for the effect of being strange. It is all a bit much for the story that it is telling, because it isn’t particularly deep. It’s just story about class differences. But if you can sync with the grotesque mood of the film, you’re in for something fascinating.
There’s lots of interesting scenes. I’d just wish that they were in service to a more stirring tale. Over the halfway point, everything descends into total anarchy and it made me grin, but it is also going off the rails. If you’d ask me, this film loses itself in a circus of incoherent strangeness and forgets to tell a compelling story. I think what happened is that director Wheatley fell in love with Ballard’s madness, but he alienated the audience. A lost opportunity is Dr. Laing himself. He remains a mystery all the way through the film and we can’t really identify with him. The whole film is, sadly, a lost opportunity.