SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 201 September 2016

Towering dystopia

High Rise

Directed by Ben Wheatley, 2016

Reviewed by Ben Robinson

The recent film adaptations of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged were a market failure. Conceived as a cinema trilogy, the heroic battle of wealthy entrepreneurs against the ravages of state regulation and economic interference failed to play well with audiences in the wake of the financial crisis. Ayn Rand, an inspiration for neo-liberalism, in the novel created Galt's Gulch as a fictional utopia for her industrialists, from whence they could organise to rebuild a society that was truly free.

High-Rise is set in a luxury tower block, where everything is catered for by the building’s architect and manager Anthony Royal. The titular brutalist building is highly stratified, with tenants hand-picked and allocated an apartment and a floor level, with associated privileges, according to their social standing.

But in contrast to Rand’s utopia where the wealthy can thrive while their underlings toil away, High-Rise depicts a microcosm of society plunging towards death. The film is an adaptation of the JG Ballard novel, written in 1975, and the film is set in a similar time period, just as neo-liberal shocks were being applies to the Chilean economy under the vicious dictatorship of Pinochet.

The film opens with a statement of intent; a man amidst the wreckage of an apartment calmly killing and dissecting a pet dog for food. The film then flashes back to when this man, Dr. Robert Laing as played by Tom Hiddlestone, moves into the building, and we are introduced to the new environs through Laing’s eyes.

The film examines the social relation through Laing’s interactions with other residents in the freshly-built building - both those on the lower floors such as the investigative documentary maker Richard Wilder, his wife Helen and their children - and those at the very top. Laing, invited to a social gathering at the Royal’s penthouse suite, arrives in his best suit, only to discover that everyone else is dressed like they’re attending a ball held by the house of Bourbon.

But as the building shudders and settles, tensions between the social stratas rise. As moss begins to climb the concrete walls, discrete inter-floor affairs become full-blown orgies, pushing and shoving gives way to armed raiding parties, descending from the top floor to kill for supplies to continue the debauchery. As the fruit in the supermarket goes rotten, lust becomes violence and the building turns in on itself. No character, including Laing, is exempt from the fall, and with his complete detachment from social norms it feels like the film shuts the audience out, severing the connection with the characters to emphasise the broader points it is attempting to make.

The film aims to be a social critique of modern society, taking aim at the dog-eat-dog, every man for himself neo-liberal philosophy espoused by many politicians, media and other institutions. It takes those trends in society and saturates them to their fullest.

The film makes excellent use of its period setting to make the link with concurrent events. As the inhabitants succumb to madness, the camera itself becomes more unhinged, and the soundtrack moves from crisp string quartets to seventies pop to Portishead’s cover of Abba’s SOS – later released by the band as a tribute to murdered MP Jo Cox.

In writing his novel, JG Ballard took inspiration for the building from Trellick Tower in West London. Built as social housing, many of the flats within were subsequently sold off for huge amounts under Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ policy, as the aesthetic and location made the now-Grade II listed building desirable. The Tower today illustrates how far the social safety net has been removed by neo-liberal politicians, and with millionaires sharing a roof with benefit claimants, how much further down the line we are towards High-Rise’s dystopia.

As Mark Kermode points out, High-Rise is a film set in the past to make points about the present as a warning for the future. But the film’s existence points to another path. High-Rise, along with other films such as Snowpiercer, point to a renewed examination in the arts of class conflict as the motor for their plots. That conflict, the conflict of all history and the greatest real-life drama, is re-emerging in real life, as neo-liberalism is beaten back and a search for a different kind of society takes place on a mass scale.

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