CBC / Matt Meuse
“They say you’re only two meals away from anarchy,” British director Ben Wheatley tells On the Coast host Gloria Mackarenko.
“You know, I like to eat. I’m probably about a cup of tea away from anarchy, usually.”
Wheatley’s new film, High-Rise, tells the twisted story of a utopian condo complex on the outskirts of a gentrifying city, and its rapid descent into chaos.
The transformation takes three months in the film. But in real life, Wheatley reckons it would be much quicker. In the aftermath of the 2008 banking crisis, he realized he only had a day’s worth of food in his house, and no real cash or valuables.
“I started looking around at the people in the street going, oh, I’d have to fight them, wouldn’t I, for food,” he said, laughing. “It would collapse really fast.”
The film is based on a novel written by English author J. G. Ballard in the 1970s. Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Robert Laing, a resident of the titular High-Rise.
The book was speculative fiction at the time, but Wheatley finds it to be remarkably prescient.
“When I reread the book in my mid-40s, I realized that it wasn’t predictive science fiction anymore, it was much more like I was reading pages out of a newspaper,” he said. “It was a bit depressing.”
To capture the feel of the novel, the film is set in a sort of alternate-history “super 70s,” as Wheatley describes it — an ambiguous, highly-stylized representation of the era.
As if to highlight this, the film ends with an archival monologue from former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, whose right-wing economic policies dominated British politics in the 80s.
“Hearing Thatcher in the air [at the end of the film] is like the ending of John Carpenter’s The Thing,” he said, referencing a classic 80s horror film with a similarly bleak ending. “When I hear that voice, I get a slight twinge of fear. I find her disconcerting and terrifying.”
“It’s saying that the whole thing is cyclical and it will start again. And we have the hindsight of knowing what’s going to happen next.”
Parallels with modern Vancouver
The city in the film is implied as London, which is currently facing housing affordability problems not unlike Vancouver’s. Prices are surging in both cities, and many blame investors who use real estate as a way of making and storing money.
Wheatley said the practice of treating real estate primarily as an investment has a devastating impact on cities.
“I always think of it as a bit like when these investors buy Van Goghs and stick them in a vault somewhere,” he said. “The art gets turned into money, becomes abstracted and then put away, and it no longer serves the point it had in the first place. So, you know, if you do that to a city, you basically kill it.”
“And what happens when no one can afford to live in the city? Do we all have to live on the outskirts and just look to it like Oz or something in the distance? I don’t know, it’s terrifying.”
High-Rise was screened Friday night as part of the Vancouver International Film Festival, with a wider Canadian release on May 20. He’ll be giving a master class as part of the festival Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Vancity Theatre.