By Mark Nadeau
The 2015 film “High-Rise” is based on the 1975 novel of the same name by the edgy science-fiction author J.G. Ballard. The film stars Tom Hiddleston (“The Avengers,” “The Night Manager”) as Dr. Robert Laing, a new tenant in a utopian high-rise who witnesses its near literal collapse.
The film sends a message about capitalism and classism as the impoverished tenants on the lower floors wage war against the wealthy ones up top. What ensues is a two-hour jumble that feels more like a montage of moments of insanity rather than a coherent story. While it can be pretty to look at, “High-Rise” ultimately falls short with its overly obvious writing, heavy-handed symbolism, and lack of direction and depth.
The movie is captivating at first as Laing roams among the rubble of his building trying to find something to eat. But it isn’t long before the film jumps back to the beginning of the story, and what follows is slow-paced. The audience learns the basics quickly: Dr. Laing recently lost a family member; the film takes place in the ’70s; the high-rise is split via economic status, etc., but things soon become much less coherent.
The incident that sends the residents over the edge and begins the descent into barbarity, the character Monroe killing himself, just doesn’t feel important enough to cause such mayhem for the next hour and a half. In fact, there’s a major split in the movie via a two-minute montage that separates the actual story into a long sequence of tenants attacking one another, throwing wild parties, and growing increasingly insane, all culminating to a lackluster payoff and no real resolution.
The writing can be corny, which Ballard rarely is, and the symbolism can be so simplistic, it insults the audience’s intelligence. For example, when Dr. Laing first meets the building’s architect (Jeremy Irons, “Reversal of Fortune”), he enters the penthouse garden and is immediately greeted by a black sheep. There are also two different scenes where a rendition of ABBA’s “SOS” is playing in the background. If that isn’t enough, the entire concept of a high-rise being a literal top-down example of an economic system is way too convenient. Even the representations of the lifestyles of the upper and lower class were ridiculous, aiming for satire, but instead achieving caricature.
The little details keep the film alive, such as the progression (or regression) of some of the minor characters. For instance, the cashier at the market seems normal, albeit a bit morbid, but after Robert leaves a “Learning French” book with her near the beginning of the movie, she becomes a crazy French-speaking director-type by the end.
One of the other positives is the cinematography. The contrast in color from a scene at the top of the high-rise and a scene at the bottom is and beautiful, and the change in the lighting as the film goes on and becomes morbid is effective and unsettling. The sets and the costumes also enhance a surreal atmosphere of this 70’s “utopia turned dystopia.”
Ultimately, the movie raises a lot more tedious questions than it answers. What’s going on in the world below that would cause someone to build these self-sustaining super structures? Why don’t the tenants just leave when it all goes to shit? Unfortunately these go unanswered and “High-Rise” suffers for it. But perhaps the biggest flaw is that the film just seems unnecessary, as if it was put together by a student studying Marxism and trying too hard to be “edgy.”