When the Poseidon Adventure came out during the tumultuous 1970s with Nixon in the White House, there were those who saw the capsized ocean liner as a metaphor for a society that had been upended. Much like Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, the new film from British avant-goremeister Ben Wheatley, High Rise, turns to a spiritually similar device to explore a civilization’s descent into madness. In this case, it’s the titular high rise in which the wealthy and privileged live. Inside, various cliques compete for the best party, the best booze, and the best women, all in their depraved pursuit of libertine activity.
Sound off the hook? Wheatley’s latest definitely is — you might even call it gonzo. All of this is to be expected considering the director’s previous films, Kill List, a hitman saga that veers off into Wicker Man territory, and A Field in England, a nutty, black-and-white psychedelic epic. High Rise, based on the novel of the same name by the edgy futurist J. G. Ballard, is a frenetic, sometimes incoherent, dystopian roller coaster ride that ultimately comes together.
The film opens with Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) standing amid cluttered squalor, blood-soaked and roasting the leg of a dog on a spit. The ambiance casts wafts of Brazil and Delicatessen, triggering the inevitable questions of, what happened and how did we get here? To get the answers, we rewind three months to when Laing secures a pristine flat midway up a high rise boasting its own supermarket, gym, swimming pool, and a school for the little residents. Like a Disney theme park, it’s a closed environment with all you need. Way up high in the penthouse looms the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Like Ayn Rand’s defiant designer in The Fountainhead, he’s both a structural and social engineer, and the de facto source of authority. Movie stars and other one-percenters live up top as well, while those of lesser means get the dark, dingy bottom. In short, the building, which Royal calls a crucible for change, is a metaphor for class division and ultimately, like the train in Snowpiercer, becomes a battleground for class war.
Ballard wrote his novel in the mid 1970s, not long after the World Trade Towers, Boston’s John Hancock building, and the Sears Tower in Chicago were erected as marvels of engineering might. They were the tomorrowland of then and raised questions about the future of urban cohabitation in the now. Given the piquant premise, Wheatley and his wife, screenwriter Amy Jump, however delve less into the dynamics of society and class, but instead shoot straight for the debacle of debauchery and the bloody reprise that’s inherent in a turf war. Neither the outside world nor the building’s interaction with it and the exact mechanics of the quick descent into mayhem — caused by rolling brownouts and a sudden lack of food — are ever fully explored.
Hiddleston, the affable actor who made his name playing the mercurial Loki in the Avengers films and demonstrated his thespian stock as an ageless vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive, once again demonstrates his agility and range, though his weary recluse who draws the attentions of many of the women from various levels in the building, is a difficult character to warm up to. He’s blessed with the weary heaviness of a defeated protagonist (think Ewan MacGregor’s heroin addict in Trainspotting), but he’s also saddled with a passive-aggressive antihero shtick that fails to endear as his indecisiveness lingers on far too long. The one definitive character of action in the film happens to be a roguish bottom dweller named Wilder (a seductively snaky Luke Evans who steals every scene he’s in) who has a pregnant wife (Elizabeth Moss) and an angry man complex that evokes the nasty performances of Malcolm McDowell during the ’70s. Armed with a movie camera and gun, he becomes the one raging voice against the machine and the building’s universal agitator. Irons, commanding as always, bites carnivorously into his alpha persona, giving Royal subtle complexity, casting him as more a philosopher, hedonist, and failed social scientist than a villainous tyrant.