“I concede that this building will be a crucible for change.” Uttered from the very mouth of the structure’s Architect himself, there is no other way around it because High-Rise generates change on a scale of which can only be attributed to author J.G. Ballard’s complex mind. His ultra-modern, luxury high-rise creations are a thing of bliss, but also a nightmare realm cut off from society where people have the potential to lose their minds Shining-style, but without the added supernatural threat… just them and the building.
It is London in 1975 and Robert Laing, a young doctor, has just become a resident of the luxury high-rise buildings and discovers a complex world of complicated loyalties, interacting with those on the lower floors, the pompous on higher ground, as well as the Architect on the roof. Soon, a dangerous social situation develops and the high-rise fragments into tribes as the poorer lower floors viciously battle with the affluent.
Emerging British director Ben Wheatley clearly sensed that the opening 10 minutes of setup was vital to High-Rise because a dystopia without sense remains a complicated and pointless otherworldly space. What is most important about it is that we get a taste for what’s to come and the degradation that will ensue in this “crucible for change.” Following the opening hint of Laing’s eventual mental deterioration, High-Rise becomes a story of no return, one that must slowly peel away at Laing’s mind-set and unravel the mysteries of this edifice. High-Rise however can be divided into two opposite sections: the opening architectural serenity and ultramodern hedonism, and the escalating barbarism that devours the building’s inhabitants. High-Rise stands out because of this stark contrast, but its flaws arise precisely because this change is too glaring to handle.
The disorder and loss of reality is properly set in motion in one particular scene where Laing exits the high-rise and helplessly utters: ‘I don’t think I remember where I left my car,’ and even more scarily, downgraded documentarian Richard Wilder has already become used to it. Prior to this it had been a controlled affair poised to remain mysterious throughout, but the high-rise instead spirals out of control and into a maniacal trance of unrestrained mindlessness; it then becomes somewhat difficult for the audience to wholly ingest after witnessing a degradation of detrimental proportions. How the inhabitants devolve cannot ever be accepted, that is why Wheatley intelligently makes High-Rise a visual film, bestowing as much meaning unto its parts as is possible so the actual purpose remains open to interpretation, or to put it better, further enveloped by mystification.
Architecturally, High-Rise is like a futuristic abstract design, quite beautiful and visionary, yet cold and emotionless. The paintings, the statues, the elevator, the balconies, literally everything is made vital to the film as the countless number of props add to its dystopian credibility, luring us into this conniving realm in the same way 1984’s omniscient CCTV does, or the blockaded wall in The Handmaid’s Tale, which is interestingly reflected in the design of the high-rise’s panoramic roof.
The architectural modernity of the high-rise contrasted with its medievalist decline truly brings the barbarity of the tribal warfare to life and renders this dystopia an unpredictable one. Even the use of classical music is vital as it is the essence of pure serenity, yet it plays over the cruelty of the high-rise’s stark decline, rendering High-Rise both calm and chaotic, a startling mix of dreamlike qualities that can mess with our full understanding. The camera angles, architecture, party taste and human psyches are all augmented in order to envision the warping of this megalithic structure that surreally distorts the longer life endures. This distortion of reality, the mind, and the soul is on another scale in High-Rise, and it is quite easily it’s most distinctive and memorable trait. Just ask this cacophonous cast of mindless performers exactly how twisted and maniacal this edifice can be!
As High-Rise is told through its imagery most of the time, there is the threat that it can get pretty alienating as a film. Firstly, the story is well beyond our understanding of humanity, secondly because the images can be equivocal, and thirdly the high-rise is constantly evolving or devolving. It truly becomes a site synonymous with change that as you end up trying to forget the High-Rise experience, the more J.G. Ballard’s ideas come to life. Looking back at the Architect’s aforementioned declaration, I think he achieved what he set out to do: change materialises in the film, and it leaves the cinema with you!
Dense. Devastating. Delirious. The fanatical High-Rise is a cornucopia of visual flamboyance, a stylish architectural dystopia worth a tonne of meaning that unfortunately cannot be expressed in the same way it looks.
Images from ‘High-Rise’, Studio Canal
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