High-Rise is a grand but ultimately unsatisfying failure.
A few years back, after watching David Cronenberg’s caustic 1975 horror comedy Shivers, I remarked on how easily this elastic parable of sleek modern excess could adapt to a contemporary update. The concept of a comprehensive range of consumer necessities encased within the mise-en-abyme paradise-turned-nightmare of an all-inclusive condo tower seems particularly pertinent today, especially in a New York City whose familiar skyline has lately been marred by a succession of spindly residential tower monoliths, tapping into the fertile real estate market like so many monstrous oil derricks. Brooklyn, a formerly low-slung borough marked by few buildings over six stories, is now dotted with looming condo developments, including a 79 story monster in the early stages of construction. Who occupies these buildings and what they use them for is another (perhaps equally dire) question, but the huddling of humans into this sort of communal but essentially lonely style of existence, ensconced within stacked apartments that confirm their inherent uniqueness through ostentatious displays of extravagant sameness, itself seems significant, a bellwether for a grim future in which the mounting horrors of the outside world can be escaped by a deep dive into personal luxury.
Such head-in-the-sand ignorance is a ripe subject for satire and seems especially perfect to be mined by a prankish dissident like Ben Wheatley, a proven chronicler of the skuzzy contact points between societal decorum and primal animalism. It’s even more promising that he’s drawing from the work of J.G. Ballard, one of science fiction’s finest chroniclers of late capitalist ennui, whose visions of cold steel and frosty reflective surfaces as intermediaries of human contact seem increasingly prescient. Yet the author’s thorny prose proves resistant to adaptation, despite the apparent ready adaptability of the novel’s basic conceit. High-Rise is thus a high-energy, high-concept disappointment, an ambitious straight-faced lampoon that doesn’t offer much more than stylish summation of ideas already offered up (in better, more concise form) in Wheatley’s earlier work.
Set in the mid-‘70s, the film follows Robert Laing, a doctor turned medical school instructor grieving the recent death of his sister, who moves into the 25th story of large Brutalist building somewhere on the outskirts of London. It’s hard to say exactly, since the titular high-rise exists in a total void of recognizable landmarks, surrounded only by the sprouting figures of other nascent towers. Self-sufficiency is therefore key, and the building responds to this need with an in-house grocery store, a racquetball court and a pool complex, among other modern amenities. Within these functionally discrete locations, and the variously arrayed apartment units clustered between them, are introduced a wide variety of weirdoes endemic to this type of story, from the rough-edged working-class documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans, doing a passable Oliver Reed impersonation), to the timid environmentalist Helen (Elisabeth Moss), the posh single mother Charlotte (Siena Miller) and the architect himself (Jeremy Irons), tucked away in an edenic garden that makes up the building’s penthouse. Each person’s apartment is set-designed as a reflection of their personality, itself an outgrowth of their social station, and the tower is itself constructed on economic terms, the poorest occupying the lower levels, the bourgeois in the middle and the richest tucked away at the top.
The closest surface comparison seems to be to Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer rendered in vertical terms, although High-Rise lacks that film’s vivid aesthetic vision while suffering from the same overblown politics and blatant allegorical composition. Rather than move with the lockstep progression of that film, which surveyed different aspects of a compressed societal structure one train car at a time, this one ambles through a diffuse narrative founded on a succession of wild cocktail parties, which spin increasingly out of control as the building’s fragile social fabric begins to break down. This breakdown of order is conveyed in audacious, forceful fashion, with decay and destruction depicted in splashy terms, blood and grime clashing purposefully with the film’s otherwise neat period aesthetic. Such conceptual brazenness—which favors the strident, sudden and obvious over the carefully conveyed or slow simmering—contrasts sharply with the smaller scope of previous Wheatley films, specifically his debut Down Terrace, which possessed a similar economic message, and where the cramped confinement of suburban English tract housing proved a fertile setting for a similar chronicle of collapse.
All of his work since, from the impossible-to-pin-down Kill List to the simultaneously jaunty and morbid Sightseers to the uneven but impressively bizarre A Field in England, possessed some element of feverish unpredictability. High-Rise attempts to maintain the same anarchic approach on a larger budget, but ends up only rehashing these previous films in more baroque form. The result is not quite ponderous but far below the agile standard set by Cronenberg’s aforementioned Shivers, which conveyed a parallel story by gradually drawing out the inherent dread of a building in rapid disintegration, establishing a cat’s cradle web of connections that tightened as the chaos heightened. The meticulous Canadian director has also fielded the most successful Ballard adaptation to date with 1996’s Crash, suggesting a punctilious approach well-suited to this kind of broad parable, amplifying, rather than dampening, its subversive impact. A brash iconoclast like Wheatley, on the other hand, is undone by the task of making this material feel properly cinematic, leaving High-Rise as a grand but ultimately unsatisfying failure.