In 1975, J.G Ballard released a book that has since been called “unfilmable”, but that didn’t stop people from trying to make it. Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of High-Rise is finally out (but has been screening in the U.K. since March). Having seen it, I can now wrap my head around why it might be “unfilmable”.
High-Rise follows Laing (Tom Hiddleston), who moves into a new building in which how high up you live depends on your place in a class-based society. Think Snowpiercer but vertically. Laing happens to live on the 25th floor, a little bit above middle of the building. Joining Laing in the building are the architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives in the penthouse, and Helen and Wilder (Elizabeth Moss and Luke Evans) who live on the second floor. We follow these characters as the society within the building begins to fall apart.
Royal designs five buildings that all represent an open hand. The plans are to have a lake in the middle, representing the palm. When Laing sees the architect’s designs, he sees a symbol that would be the lake and says, “It looks like the unconscious diagram of some kind of psychic event.” This feels like a line where, in future viewings, may make sense of the whole film. Frankly, I don’t fully get it.
It’s a film that feels like at any point there will be a piece of information that will make sense of the events that happen in the building, but there never is an explanation, it just is.
Since the tower is designed for people in lower classes to live closer to the ground, and the upper class being literally at the top, it’s clear that the film and the novel are about society, and as the chaos begins, the story is also about how society crashes. It takes place in 1975, the same year the novel came out, and by making it a period piece in which every character is walking out of the 70s, and contrasting that by having Laing look like he walked in from today, the movie makes you look at how society works today.
The tenants in the building have an ordinary life in which the children go to school and the adults go to their day jobs. They come home in the evening for dinner and repeat the next day. But the building is built to have all their needs, such as a pool and a grocery store, which allows them to become lazier and lazier (does this sound like modern society yet?) They eventually stay home and stop going to work. It’s then when the people in the building seemingly lose their mind.
Chaos ensues and the building becomes a huge mess as no one cares to clean up. The tenants do as they please, attacking one another and worse. After everything crumbles, society, as it does, rebuilds and attempts to grow stronger. Laing mentions that this process will continue in the next building, and presumably, will also happen in the next three after that. And if the buildings represent our society, it’s fucked before it gets better.
High-Rise reminds me of another film I saw this year, Midnight Special, in which I undoubtedly recognize it’s a good movie, but I feel so detached from it that I wasn’t invested in anything that happened. And also that it feels as if there’s a reveal around most corners. The film is cold (I’ve heard comparisons to Kubrick; A Clockwork Orange specifically) and it is extremely well made. Wheatley is an extremely talented filmmaker (Kill List shines brightly even with its dark material) but High-Rise didn’t click for me, at least on a first viewing.
Ben Wheatley made a really good film out of what seemed to be an unfilmable story, and he does it with a control he’s exhibited in the past. The actions are visceral, sudden, and in the moment, even if that moment is 40 years ago, it is still right now.