Based off of a J.G. Ballard novel of the same name, High-Rise is about an apartment building that was designed to be a self-contained community. There’s a built-in grocery store, garbage chutes on every floor, a pool, a gym, anything you could want. The only reason to go out would be to go to work. But there are bugs in the system. The lower floors are for those with lesser incomes, and the elite take the higher floors. When the lower floors start having technical issues, they blame the rich. The system breaks down. Chaos ensues.
Here’s a very important question the movie doesn’t answer: why doesn’t anyone leave? This scenario serves as a mini-apocalypse, with the high-rise going Mad Max in short order. Yet not a single person flees. One character, the wife of the building’s architect, considers it. Packs a bag. Then the architect hits her, and she never tries again, even though that moment of physical abuse doesn’t really seem to affect her.
Which leads nicely into me saying this movie is weird. Very, very weird. Motivations are simply not going to make total sense. The direction was clearly more style and image than it was natural character development and story progression. A rather essential chunk of the story, wherein the denizens of the building go from merely wild to completely unhinged, is shown in montage. A quick glossing over of everyone descending into pure anarchy.
The only character whose story feels whole is Dr. Robert Laing, played by Tom Hiddleston. His journey makes sense, but his encroaching madness has little to do with the fluctuating tribes of psychopaths around him. It’s because of a petty thing he did that had devastating consequences. That made sense. It was vivid and done well. Here’s the problem. Laing isn’t the only character we’re following. There’s a whole cavalcade of characters, and I can’t answer the myriad questions I have about most of them.
Especially Jeremy Irons as Royal, the architect. (Also, his name is Royal? Subtle. Anyway.) Royal has a tendency to be equally good and equally shit as a person. He bestows kindnesses. He dishes out abuse. He rescues his wife. He cheats on her. He makes a place for all the stray dogs that have amassed in the building. He refers to a woman he slept with by her apartment number rather than her given name. What is he? Who is he? The picture we’re given is complicated but not actually deep. More confusing than anything.
Luke Evans as Richard Wilder has some depth to him, but again not as much as Laing. Evans manages to make it work in spite of that, but it’s only because he’s clearly acting the hell out of the part. The women have some good moments, but there were at least two I couldn’t tell apart, because they were merely faces in the crowd that happened to keep popping up. And notice I called them “the women.” That speaks to how little character there was. There was Charlotte, whose major characteristic was that she was a free spirit who had a lot of sex. And there was depressed, pregnant Helen. Not a lot to work with there, and not a lot to discuss either.
I’ve not read the novel by Ballard, but I get the feeling this is about the gist of what they had to work with. I have read a collection of his short work, and this seems par for the course. Women with little to no character. The men who generally don’t seem to like them very much. An opinion of mankind that makes Lord of the Flies look like Winnie the Pooh.
And that’s where I’m not sure what the message was. People are crap? That seems too simple. Especially when the tone of the film edged so often and strongly toward dark comedy. So is it about the absurdity of this scenario? Because the director did make it seem very absurd. Or the absurdity of violence? I don’t know. It was a spectacle that comes off as pretentious for that very reason. Because greatness would require the movie having a moral or a message that’s tangible and not lost in the muck. It feels like something I would’ve written in high school. The hilarity of human folly. But it’s not clever or deep. It’s sophomoric.
It also wasn’t all bad. There were some very powerful scenes. Some hilarious scenes. Luke Evans put in an especially fantastic performance. It was beautifully shot and works as a piece of art to admire. It’s a movie that could probably benefit from multiple viewings, but could you stand to watch it over and over? Not because it’s violent or subversive. I don’t mean that. Because it’s sloppy and imperfect. How many times can you sit through a swirl of colors and sound with the hope that it will eventually make perfect sense?
A very mixed bag, but I do actually suggest checking it out for yourself. Thank you for reading, and as always, happy geeking!
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