VANCOUVER — There is a certain shuddering fear within Western civilization about being left to our own devices without the comforts of modern life. A friend remarked over a mimosa brunch recently a quandary about what has happened that led us from the hunter/gatherer instinct to an idea like brunch; what occurred to change us from tribal survivors to status animals with an egg white frittata on the end of our fork? And how thin is the line between the two?
When J.G. Ballard wrote High Rise, his 1975 dystopic nightmare play on the “two dressed up as a ten” aristocracy of the modern yuppie, he unfolded an existence that seemed so nightmarish in its detached empathy and visible viscera that no one could imagine it as predictive fiction. Now, however, in the age of “always a better iPhone,” where people define themselves by what section of Gastown they live in, this story of a luxury high rise devolving into violent pack mentality and opulent gluttony all at once has become less of a science fiction escape and more of a very legitimate cautionary tale.
Director Ben Wheatley, the man behind the equally brutal study of the human love of downward spiraling chaos Sightseers, saw beauty in Ballard’s prognostication and aggressive poetics therein and figured it was high time this mirror was turned on a modern audience.
“It was just straightforward, you know. He’s not afraid of blatant massive metaphor, like the rich at the top and the not so rich at the bottom. I like that, it’s straight ahead. He has that thing that Kubrick has as well where there’s a b-movie narrative that sits on top of something that’s much more complex underneath,” says Wheatley.
The b-movie narrative comes in the form of an almost comically emotionless cast of affected apartment dwellers, all swaggering in and out of the titular tower with an accomplished sense of existential entitlement. They compete for the elevator, they compete for apartments on the right floor, they compete for parking spots, they compete for the right to use the pool; life in the high rise is a pressure cooker of a self-made society of status. Like what would happen if Lord of the Flies had taken place with the characters from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
What bubbles underneath this narrative is the very real and almost insatiable desire humans have for keeping up with the Joneses. The building often faces infrastructure woes, but the bored and classist souls within it, enjoying their oasis from “what’s going on at street level,” put up with it just to live in an environment described by one character as “prone to fits of mania, narcissism, and power outages.”
“We wanted to make a movie that was sexy and was glamourous and was violent. Rather than making something that was just a drudge,” says Wheatley. “You needed to have that journey of what the potential of the building was versus the total collapse of it. The audience needs to enjoy it and it needs to emerge as somewhere they would essentially want to be.”
This is where the film becomes uncomfortable. The violence is jarring and somewhat frequent; the decline of the social constructs within the building is not only aggressive but also wholly embraced. You are strapped to a seat, watching a group of truly ruthless individuals let death and consequence roll off their back like a broken string of pearls. And there is part of you, even a small part, that finds the detachment a little cathartic. Or as Jeremy Irons’ character, penthouse resident Anthony Royal, remarks: “Why delve?”
“An essential tenant of the book is the perversity of the characters and that they enjoy the anarchy and they want to stay for the anarchy,” remarks Wheatley. “It’s something that is kind of counter-intuitive for a modern audience because logic is they would escape, but they actually end up joining together in their love of the destruction.”
“I think that is a misconception about the book that they are trapped there. They’re not. It’s a freedom it gives them but it’s a brutal freedom.”
As the movie moves to its beautifully filmed, intoxicatingly sound edited, decaying nightmare of a conclusion, after pulling you through a denouement of feral righteousness that feels more like a ballet than an ordeal, you see why there are people who would witness the thrusting carnage of that kind of downfall and still think it looks exciting. And that is why history will always repeat itself, whether it is the fall of Rome or the decline of a luxury high rise into tribal warfare.
When Tom Hiddleston’s character Dr. Robert Laing attends his first party as an approved resident, he cites his desire to “get everything right,” and it is this that intoxicates him to the climb.
“It’s a social contract. He thinks if he does things right, then he’ll be rewarded and move up through the system, but then the system changes around him,” says Wheatley.
“That’s kind of how we all act, like we need permission to do stuff, and you don’t really need permission to do anything. But it suits the society to keep your ambitions battened down so you don’t think outside of what you are doing; because if you did for a minute, so many things wouldn’t make sense.”
“Once you get to that stage where none of it matters and it doesn’t matter anymore, then you’ve totally eroded the social contract so why does anybody do what they’re told anymore?”
High Rise is a glimpse into a world not too unlike our own, where people are commodities and blood & wine are the same thing. It is not for the faint of heart, but that is exactly who should see it, because the world can become brutal at the drop of a hat, and it is important to know what side of the line you are capable of standing on.
High Rise opens May 20.