You don’t get a to take a bow or receive a gold star for figuring out the Big Allegory in “High-Rise.” It’s there, front and center and obvious to all, thanks to sci-fi novelist J.G. Ballard’s naming of the characters living in the penthouse of the titular apartment block that the film is about.
They’re “The Royals.” And the missus (Keely Hawes) has a thing for Marie Antoinette and pre-revolutionary French decadence. Their huge flat is decorated like Versailles. Her husband, the designer of the high-rise, rules it like a philosopher king.
And all the folks on the floors below? Let them eat power shortages, garbage that isn’t picked up and elevators that don’t work half the time.
Ben Wheatley (“A Field in England””Sightseers”) brings a horror maven’s eye for the grotesque to Ballard’s ’60s dystopia, setting up this “crucible for change” as a period piece and then letting one man’s idea of utopia fall apart.
Unfortunately, the more things spiral into anarchy, the less interesting the story becomes.
Tom Hiddleston (“Thor,””Crimson Peak”) is our lean, dashing “Mad Men” era narrator and protagonist. He lives in the upper floors of this concrete, suburban Brit-monstrosity. And when we meet him, things have already gone to Hell.
Sure, it has every convenience the early ’70s can provide — shag carpeting, a supermarket on one floor, a spa, gym and Olympic pool on another. When he moved in, three months earlier, Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston) is greeted with hostility. But even as the snobbery and class consciousness become more evident, Laing is helpless to intervene, even if he sees what’s coming.
Sienna Miller plays the sexy upstairs neighbor whose attentions get Laing involved in the building’s social scene. Luke Evans and Elizabeth Moss are “lower floor” types — unable to afford a higher apartment, with two kids and another on the way.
Wilder (Evans) is a TV personality and veteran class warrior. He’s the first to notice the services seem a little sloppy for the lower floors. Laing suggests as much when he’s summoned to the architect’s penthouse. “The building’s still settling,” Royal purrs, as only Irons can. We don’t believe him any more than Laing does.
Nothing gets fixed. Peons aren’t paid. Resources — starting with the pool — are fought over. Things turn tribal and ugly. There are no cops here. And Laing’s daily commute (all the cars are ’60s era Brit-mobiles) offers no relief. Their society is crumbling.
Ballard was making what now seem obvious points about the inhumanity of science experiment architecture and social planning. As Laing narrates, “They were living in a future that had already taken place.”
The dialogue can be pithy, but comically expositonal.
“I’m an orthodontist and a homosexual,” sneers one snob.
“High-Rise” has not just the look, but the feel of ’60s sci-fi, a certain literary high-mindedness coupled with its vivid recreation of a place out of time and a time out of place.
Moss (“Mad Men”) slings a fair English accent, Hiddleston is properly befuddled and Irons handles the exposition/ethos and imperious noblesse oblige of a one percenter who theorizes about “healthy competition” and other features that his 40 story rat maze will test.
Evans and Miller bring the film to violent, sexual life with their every appearance mirroring the depths the building’s tenants have descended to.
It’s not great, but it’s ambitious, in that “Ex Machina/Her” sort of way. “High-Rise” gives you things 45 minutes of things to chew on in a 115 minute movie.
And if those chewables are not cutting edge or surprising, it’s worth remembering that they were when Ballard wrote this. It’s not his fault his prophecies seem like accepted wisdom, now.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with graphic violence, nudity, substance abuse, sexual situations, profanity
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss, Luke Evans, Jeremy Irons
Credits: Directed by Ben Wheatley, script by Amy, based on the J.G. Ballard book. A Magnet release.
Running time: 1:58