VOD Review: High-Rise.
Stylish and visually impressive, High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston, lacks substance and squanders the social message behind J.G. Ballard’s social parable.
High-Rise is a film I’ve wanted to review since April, but a ludicrous pricing structure kept me away. Nine dollars for a VOD rental? That’s IMAX money, fellas, and there’s no way anyone should be paying that for straight to home video.
It’s taken quite a while for the price to fall, but now that it has, I’m ready to dive in. And be disappointed.
While the film is quite beautiful to behold, it is hollow and gaudy. The novel it was based upon was a subversive commentary on the stratification of the have’s and have-nots, and how easily people throw themselves into tribal mentality. The film contains only a whisper of that critique, instead focusing on the titillating aspects of moral degeneracy like sex and drugs.
A famous and eccentric architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) creates a towering monolith of opulence for the rich. The structure contains markets, gymnasiums, a school, and many other amenities, allowing the residents to live completely removed from the larger society. Into this vertical paradise comes Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a likable but self involved loner. As soon as he arrives, he is caught up in the incessant squabbles between the upper and lower floors. The richer you are, the higher you live, and the building is arranged so even sunlight is more plentiful on the top floors.
Problems come to a head when the hermetically sealed utopia begins to develop shortages. Power becomes unreliable, the markets begin to experience shortages, and even the elevators start to break down. The people become Balkanized, and paradise tears itself apart from the inside out.
The central premise of High-Rise is built upon a set of assumptions that make no sense. The residents aren’t prisoners, and are free to come and go. The wider society isn’t in decline, so there’s no earthly reason why you’d kill 15 people for the last box of cereal if you could simply go outside and buy more. If we’re supposed to infer that all of society is segmented, no evidence is presented. If we’re supposed to believe that people become so tribal and ruled by mob mentality that they forget the outside exists, I’m just not buying it.
Gaudy and Gauche
Director Ben Wheatley turns visual beauty into a fetish, apparently willing to sacrifice his story and characters upon the alter of style. There are shots that don’t really advance the story, but are lingered upon because they’re very pretty. Characters put themselves in odd situations, such as Laing obsessing over painting his new apartment, without reason; it simply exists so Wheatley can get a cool shot of Hiddleston covered in “war” paint. Perhaps these elements make sense in the context of the novel, but they are given no grounding in the film.
The performances in the film are good, but suffer from a lack of characterization. I can’t tell you a single thing about any of their motivations. They are either ignored or assumed to be so stereotypical (James Purefoy plays a character who might as well be named “aristocratic rich guy”) that you don’t need to have it spelled out. That is incredibly lazy writing.
The lack of characters who have any depth cuts the film off at the legs. We’re supposed to be watching a drama where society is show in a microcosm, but we only get a few token efforts. Is Luke Evans’ character supposed to symbolize ALL of the poor people, or is he just the only one Wheatley bothered to include? In the novel, the rich and the poor are seperated by a middle class, and that makes the situation into a Mexican stand-off…but in this film Laing is the only middle classer we get. He’s ping-ponged between the rich and poor, but never lets on to how he feels about the conflict. Apparently all he really wants is that goddamn can of paint.
Eat the Rich
I’ve noticed the word “apparently” popping into the review quite a bit. This film really fails because it lacks any substance. You have to guess any broader meaning or moral, since the director chooses to gloss over the allegory in favor of artsy shots and rampant nudity. The whole affair feels as if you remade 1984 but only mentioned Big Brother once, and instead spent the whole run-time focusing on Winston and Julia screwing. I was going to compare this film to 2014’s Snowpiercer, which likewise tried to tell a dystopian fable but sacrificed story for visual artistry…but Snowpiercer at least ended up being an actual dystopian fable. A silly one, but at least it tried. High-Rise forgets to tell a story.