Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s dystopian novel is all about the aesthetic. At the start of many of those found footage movies there is often some cheesy text along the lines of “this footage was found in the basement, and has been edited together to tell the story”. Although it’s not found footage, High-Rise looks like a rediscovered movie, you could imagine a similar opening sequence proclaiming “This movie was found in the vaults of controversial 1970s auteur Claus von Billow. Only now can it be shown.” Wheatley bravely opts to make it as if it had been filmed when the book came out, and he captures this superbly: British Leyland cars, paper, concrete, even an Ollie Reed look-a-like. This is no nostalgia “do you remember Spangles” trip though. Truffaut declared England an uncinematic country, and his verdict is borne out in many British films, but in this (and other Wheatley films) the mundane items take on the aesthetic of the film.
At the start of the film Hiddlestone’s character Robert Laing declares that “He found it difficult to believe they were not living in a future which had already taken place.” That is perhaps the only nod to the meta-narrative the audience must take on, after that it has the confidence not to explain or justify the past version of the future. Hiddlestone is a new resident in the brutalist, concrete, high rise block where “people don’t care what happens two floors above or below them.” You can’t get out of the lift without tripping over an allegory – the allocation of resources, privilege, social mobility, immigration. All these are handled adeptly without being clunky. Even the cinematic cousins of High-Rise seem to be of the era: Abigail’s Party, Rosemary’s Baby, Soylent Green.
But the film lacks any sense of foreboding, even when Hiddlestone meets the powerful Architect (who lives on the to floor, amid bright gardens and horses, in stark contrast to the browns and greys below), there is no real menace. You don’t get the feeling of Laing being pulled into a story that he can’t control, as we saw with such devastating effect in Wheatley’s Kill List. Ultimately it’s a case of aesthetic over narrative, but given the only aesthetic we have in movies currently is “dark superhero’ that is no mean achievement.