High-Rise (2015)

There’s a monastery in France designed by the celebrated Modernist architect, Le Corbusier, which is a site of pilgrimage for architectural buffs.  But there aren’t many monks actually living there.

You see, when the thriving community of Dominican monks first moved in, they started having a lot of problems with severe depression.  It may have sent Corbu’s fans into shivers of ecstasy, but its prison-like cells and oppressive, often unusable spaces made actually living there appalling.

Which brings us to High-Rise.

This is a strange film to find here.  I’ll admit that  On the surface it isn’t SF, even if it bears an uncomfortable resemblance to much of the post-Apocalyptic film genre.  But, while the director may have chosen to set his film in what appears to be the mid-Seventies, this certainly wasn’t true of the original novel.

J.G. Ballard may be best remembered for his novel Empire of the Sun (or at least, the Spielberg movie based on it) but he was also a Science Fiction writer, many of whose novels are set in crumbling dystopic futures.  For some reason I can’t explain, his works are often considered psychedelic, even though they seem about as far removed from the usual sense of the word as any 1970s British New Wave SF writer could get.

The problem, of course, is that the real world has a tendency to make old SF predictions obsolete, and the high tech high rise of Ballard’s novel no longer seems quite as much of a fantasy as it did in the Seventies.  Although I’m not sure that the story doesn’t need a crumbling near-term future to support it, as one is left with the uncomfortable awareness that most of those in the High-Rise are going off to their daily job, then coming back to war on each other like the last, desperate shreds of mankind fighting over a few gallons of unleaded (or in this case, the cans of paint in the fifteenth floor market).

Pontificating over the decaying world of the High Rise is the architect, appropriately named “Royal” (played by Jeremy Irons), who lives up on the top floor, in a fantasy garden, complete with horse, overseeing his creation.  He built his monstrosity with the deliberate intention of re-creating man, putting him in a brutal, modernist machine of a building to force him into the perfect shape.  Only the results of his experiment in social engineering are disastrous.  Instead, as the building’s systems break down, it releases all the worst that is in his tenants and turns them on each other.

Ironically, it is the apparent freedom of this self-contained world which starts this breakdown, with the breakdown of the normal societal constraints on behavior (particularly sexual).  Soon those on the upper floors are pitted against those on the lower, with the fractures occurring mostly along class lines.  This was one of the reasons the director, Ben Wheatley chose to set the story in the past, as class no longer plays the same part in British society it once did.  However, it seems to me that the story is less about class warfare and more about the darker aspects of human nature as even those from the lower floors are guilty of terrible things.

We see it all from the perspective of Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston), who lives roughly halfway up the tower, a mild social climber who desires to fit in and live undisturbed.  It remains one of the more disturbing aspects of the story how easily – and completely – he adapts to his new life, so thoroughly, in fact, that he can roast a dog for dinner without a qualm, while thinking about setting up a private practice in the tower.

There is a truly black sense of comedy to the proceedings, but, as the tower’s descent into madness grows ever darker, it is somewhat overshadowed by the death, violence and ever more terrible vices.  The initial breakdown could have stood a bit more coverage (as it mostly takes place within a single montage) and the final act suffers from a certain randomness and could have stood a bit more direction to the storyline.  To a large extent this was an inevitable flaw in the story Ballard was trying to tell.  The novel was long considered impossible to adapt to film, which makes this blackly funny farce of a movie all the more impressive.

One can only be impressed by the enormous skill behind this film, with its remarkable cast and their impressive performances.  The brutal design of the building is almost a character in itself, its oddly angled piers thrusting themselves into every corner of its residents lives.  It is, yes, flawed, and many people will be repelled by its darkness and violence, but it is a stunning film, full of memorable lines and startling imagery.

It’s just not science fiction anymore.

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