The titular “High Rise” of Ben Wheatley’s film is some sort of gleaming futuristic skyscraper, forty stories high, but jutting out at the top, like an inverted 55 Central Park West (“Spook central”) if it occupied an eerily empty space akin to Nakatomi Plaza and was populated with a gaggle of Swinging 60s Londoners at a massive 70s Key Party. If that sounds like a batshit descriptor, well, “High Rise” is something of a batshit movie, one that makes its apocalyptic overtones clear from the first frames which find its main character, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), covered in blood and roasting dead husky on a spit on an otherwise pristine balcony. The movie then flashes back five days, chronicling just how the High Rise devolves into this chaos. Well, “chronicling” is too strong a word. “High Rise” might be based on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, which I have not read, but there is not a sturdy structure here to the narrative so much as a jarring submersion, ready or not, into the movie’s extremely macabre world. And once you are submersed, rest assured, there is no coming back up for air; this is an unrelenting deep dive into the worst the world has to offer.
Laing arrives as a new tenant on the middle floor, a floor below beguiling Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), and several floors above the manically intense Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss). There is something of a hierarchy here, as one might suspect, with the higher floors belonging to the rich & famous and the lower floors belonging to the commoners. As clear as the delineations in “High Rise” sound, however, Wheatley has no interest in providing a formal floor plan presentation, just as he forgoes a convenient breakdown of the myriad rules and regulations apparently pertaining to different levels. Instead we get our bearings through the disparities by way of images, where barely illuminated lower-level hallways in which a fed-up janitor ceaselessly roams comes to resemble the furnace rooms of the S.S. Titanic while an 18th century costume party on some higher floor is only missing a scene where someone tells everyone on the first floor to eat cake.
Similarly the express purpose for the separation of classes is never really explained. Laing is called to a meeting with the building’s Architect (Jeremy Irons), who keeps a penthouse on the top floor with a garden so spacious it has room for his wife’s horse, but the Architect never explains his motivations beyond broad generalizations. He intends it as “a crucible for change” but never defines the “change” he hopes for or how the “crucible” will bring it about. Laing’s reasons for moving into the building are even more unclear. “An investment for the future,” he says, whatever that means, and the future becomes of little consequence once the present disintegrates into unholy chaos.
There are parallels here to Bong Joon-ho’s 2014 film “Snowpiercer”, set on a supertrain, where the poor were huddled near the caboose while the rich gallivanted up near the engine. But “Snowpiercer” centered around an uprising of sorts and there is not so much an uprising in “High Rise” as a collapse into a complete anarchy, and the film willingly gives itself over to that anarchy too. Any commentary on class warfare that it was only half-heartedly peddled to begin with, or insight into how the heartz of men, rich or poor, is pretty much the same when the lights go out, falls by the wayside in the name of unremitting lewd, morbid montages of the High Rise unhinghed, imagining Armageddon as something akin to a “Wolf of Wall Street”-ish coke-fueled pool party. It’s orgiastic if stylistic nihilism. I did not exactly enjoy it; I also could not bring myself to look away.