“High Rise,” the novel written by the late English author J.G. Ballard, was published in 1975. The story follows a diverse group of characters who live in a luxurious skyscraper that features every amenity imaginable. Things are so convenient, in fact, that the tenants gradually become less interested in the outside world. The idea of people becoming increasingly uninterested in the outside world is obviously still relevant more than 40 years later, since many of us prefer to order everything online and only venture outdoors if there’s a rare Pokemon to be caught. But while this movie adaptation has its moments of inspired lunacy, it’s ultimately too slight and scattershot to leave a lasting impact.
“Living in a high-rise requires a special type of behavior.”
The movie opens with a cheerily apocalyptic prologue in which Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) walks us through life in what has become a decimated high-rise. The story then jumps back three months, shortly after Laing’s arrival in the posh 40-story building on the outskirts of London. The high-rise is the first of five planned skyscrapers to be completed, and the project is the brainchild of eccentric, esteemed architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). The building’s more well-to-do tenants live on the upper floors, while those with more modest means live on the lower levels. Laing moves into the 25th floor, which places him squarely in the building’s middle class.
The other tenants include documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), who lives on the lower floors with pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss). Laing also bonds with Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), a single mother who lives on the floor above him and has caught the eye of several of the building’s male tenants. As Laing mingles with both the building’s upper and lower class tenants, he finds it’s an awkward fit either way. A humiliation causes him to act harshly, which leads to tragedy in the high-rise. More importantly, some intermittent power outages and other flaws within the building eventually lead to escalating tension between the high-rise’s upper and lower classes. Pretty soon, the society that sprung up within the building begins to crumble.
Director Ben Wheatley clearly has an enthusiasm for and connection with the source material. The interior of the building feels both otherworldly and fully realized, which serves as a nice counterpoint to the (intentionally) phony-looking exterior area around the building. Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump have retained the story’s 1970s setting, which gives High-Rise a distinctive style to go along with its timely story.
The problem, unfortunately, is that this movie is kind of a mess…and mostly not on purpose. I say that because I reckon at least some of the feeling of disorientation you’re likely to feel watching High-Rise is meant to mirror the way the building’s tenants feel as they become increasingly disconnected from the rest of the world. (A man leaping to his death doesn’t so much as bring a single police car to the high-rise.) The problem is that a lot of the key, chaotic moments that lead to the collapse of the building’s social structure are presented as frenetic montages. So other than the lights flickering on and off a few times and Laing getting stuck in an elevator, we don’t get a strong sense as to why things in the high-rise devolve to the extent that they do. Instead, we mostly just witness the quirky aftermath.
Hiddleston makes for an alluring guide through High-Rise, so it’s totally believable that Laing attracts all sorts of attention upon his arrival. Yet instead of serving as a relatively straightforward audience surrogate, Laing is a little left-of-center himself. The result is a more interesting performance from Hiddleston than he might be allowed to give under different circumstances. However, it comes at the slight expense of illustrating the effect the high-rise can have on a “normal” person. (It never feels like Laing was normal or that the building did all that much to him.)
Evans (as Wilder) and Irons (as Royal) live up to their character’s names. Evans’ rage has some wounded feelings behind it as Wilder agitates to upend the building’s hierarchy, while Irons is a regal, unpredictable presence as the building’s creator. In addition to Miller (charming, if underdeveloped in her handful of scenes) and Moss (probably the story’s most humane character, yet still fallible), the movie includes gloriously wacky supporting performances from the likes of James Purefoy and Keeley Hawes.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in Ballard’s story, and a decent number of them have made it on to the screen to varying degrees. (The comparison of the high-rise to an organism; the idea that people revert to acting like feral cavemen at home, which is a problem when your “home” is its own mini-society.) However, the movie ends up reflecting its skyscraping star: everything looks glitzy and exciting on the surface, but it’s mostly a mess once you look closer.
High-Rise is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 34 mbps. Obviously, the majority of the story takes place inside the titular high-rise, so I worried about about the potential for digital noise and other imperfections during the more darkened interior scenes. While a bit of noise does crop up from time to time — particularly in the movie’s latter half when things really start to deteriorate on the lower floors — this presentation is largely defined by some fantastic fine detail. It’s there in the background of practically ever shot (which makes you appreciate the impressive production design here), but it’s also evident in close-ups (Hiddleston’s icy blue-green eyes). The ’70s color palette is a bit muted (more browns than we’re used to seeing these days), but still pops impressively. Overall, a strong, immersive presentation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track captures the full majestic sweep of Clint Mansell’s score, particularly the classical strings and woodwinds. (The movie’s groovy soundtrack also features Portishead’s cover of ABBA’s “SOS”, which was released the same year as Ballard’s novel.) Of course, the music isn’t the only part of this sonic presentation that takes full advantage of the sound track. This is a consistently lively presentation that features some nice rear speaker activity during the party scenes (for both the upper and lower floors) and directionality when it is appropriate (a rubber ball pings all over the sound field during a game of squash between Laing and Royal). The track also packs an impressive punch whenever there’s a burst of violence inside the building. You wouldn’t necessarily expect High-Rise to be a sonic showcase, but this enveloping track absolutely helps sell the notion that this building is its own world.
All of the bonus material is presented in HD.
Commentary with actor Tom Hiddleston, director Ben Wheatley, and producer Jeremy Thomas: Hiddleston serves as the unofficial emcee of this conversation, which includes plenty of cool production details (although Wheatley isn’t giving away the secret to filming inside a mirrored elevator) and background on this project. Thomas —who refers to himself as the movie’s midwife and has been trying to make the book into a movie since shortly after it was published — discusses the decision to keep the story in the ‘70s rather than modernizing it.
Building the World of High-Rise — 70s Style: (9:02) Costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux and production designer Mark Tildesley take center stage alongside director Ben Wheatley to discuss High-Rise’s throwback sensibility. Wheatley wanted to avoid simply mimicking 70s cinema, while Dicks-Mireaux and Tildesley giddily accepted the challenge of channeling such a stylish time period.
Heady Special Effects: (3:36) This brief featurette takes a closer look at the scene where “head doctor” Robert Laing leads a gruesome lecture using a severed human head. Cool stuff, if you can stomach it.
Breaking Down High-Rise and Its Tenants: (14:50) My favorite special feature on this disc simply features practically every main cast member discussing their character and their role in the story. At first glance, this is nothing special. But getting such a relatively straightforward and grounded explanation of what’s happening in this movie is a nice complement to the nutso finished product.
High-Rise — Bringing Ballard to the Big Screen: (3:58) Essentially a condensed version of the previous special feature. (This one includes input from Wheatley, who feels the story in Ballard’s story is timely even after 40 years.)
I have a feeling High-Rise plays even better on repeat viewings, when you have your feet under you and can more easily adjust to the movie’s off-kilter rhythm. As it stands, I’m judging it on my first impression, which is that there are good performances, imaginative flourishes, and cool production design/costumes but it’s in service of a story that falls a little flat.
That being said, I recommend you give this a look if you’re in the mood for something different because “on the whole, life in the high-rise was good.”