Adaptation Drama

'High-Rise' Film Review: Society crumbles, in this towering tale of class warfare

May 20, 2016Ben MK

Like "Lord of the Flies" for condo-dwellers, High-Rise poses a simple question: What if a building that was designed to be a self-contained, concrete paradise was suddenly plunged into the dark ages? Would its residents follow suit? Based on the novel by J.G. Ballard, the movie answers this question through the eyes of one Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a successful doctor, and the tower's newest occupant.

When Laing first took up residency on the 25th floor of the high-rise, it seemed like an ideal place to plant seeds for the future. Situated on the outskirts of London, England, and masterminded by reclusive architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the tower — the first of five — was originally envisioned to be "a crucible for change." Unfortunately, Royal can now only watch helplessly from his penthouse apartment as his vision slips away by the second, what with residents roaming the hallways like madmen, raping, pillaging and killing as they please.

To understand where things went wrong, you have to step back three months to Laing's induction into the high-rise's peculiar social structure. Numbering forty floors in total, the building sorts its occupants by class, with the filthy rich inhabiting the top-most floors, while the upper-middle class gravitate towards the middle, leaving the bottom-most levels for working-class families and the like. When a blackout cripples the tower, however, it sends residents into panic mode. And before long, basic civility has all but disappeared, and a new order emerges.

Blending dark humor with an at times grim, at times glossy, retro vision of the future, director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump position High-Rise as a post-apocalyptic comedy-of-sorts, with Laing being caught in the middle of increasingly bizarre and unpleasant scenarios, while at the same time trying his best not to lose his head. As the film's opening scene foretells, however, that proves to be easier said than done. And soon, Laing finds himself participating in, if not embracing, the madness that has consumed all his neighbors.

Speaking of Laing's neighbors, the cast here is uniformly excellent, including Sienna Miller as single mother and socialite Charlotte Melville, who lives one floor up, Mad Men's Elizabeth Moss as pregnant mother-of-two Helen Wilder, who lives several floors below, and Helen's husband Richard (Luke Evans), a documentary filmmaker who contributes to the building's descent into chaos. It's Hiddleston, however, who leads the pack, going from low-key to mania over the course of the film, and striking a note-perfect balance of charisma and psychosis along the way.

Unfortunately, what High-Rise lacks is cohesion in its storytelling, and with no real heroes or villains to root for or against, not to mention multiple subplots that intersect with one another at various points, the narrative wears out its welcome well before the movie can reach its conclusion. Still, everything that Wheatley and company toss up on-screen in the interim proves visually mesmerizing. And despite the fact that the original novel was published just over 40 years ago, High-Rise's themes still feel as topical and as timely as ever.

High-Rise releases May 20th, 2016 from Soda Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language and some drug use. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 59 Mins.

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