Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
In Ben Wheatley’s new film adaptation of the classic J.G. Ballard novel, orgies, rapes, and murders among residents are part of a literal struggle to the top.
High-Rise, the latest film by the director Ben Wheatley, adapts J.G. Ballard’s classic science-fiction novel of the same name to gruesome, dark-humored excess. (The film opens in wide release Friday; check out the trailer at the end of this post.)
Tom Hiddleston plays Robert Laing, a mild-mannered neurologist who leases a new life in an East London luxury high rise designed by a powerful architect, Anthony Royal (played by Jeremy Irons). Royal, a brutalist in all senses of the word, describes his building as “a crucible for change” in society, and indeed it is. No more than 25 minutes into the film, the building’s physical decay sets in, first through elevator failures and power outages, then trash pile-ups and dwindling food supplies (in a very Jacques Tati private supermarket). Floors of residents, stratified along class lines and insulated from the outside world, advance this degeneration toward all-out squalor as they orgy, rape, pillage, and murder in a literal struggle to the top.
Buttoned-up Laing resists much of the anarchy, but eventually comes to enjoy life in the high-rise dystopia. Here’s CityLab’s roundtable take on a graphic tale of class warfare and the social-psychological effects of the built environment. (Note: Spoilers ahead!)
Laura Bliss: Just to get this out of the way: Hiddleston’s physical perfection shimmers even through a layer of dried dog blood. He’s also a very good actor. Watching him carry this role—shifting through his character’s contempt, fascination, and timorous fellowship with his neighbors—was one of the best parts of the film. Plus the string-quartet rendition of Abba’s “S.O.S.,” and the amazing one-liners, such as the ominous kiss-off growled by Pangbourne, Royal’s evil henchman: “I don't work for you. I work for the building.”
Which leads me to my major qualm: We get plenty of soaring CGI views of the high rise’s edifice, with its layers of recessed balconies, but not much insight into how the building is actually driving social stratification. Much of the action takes place in only two spaces: Royal’s penthouse, where the one-percenters gather, and… some other floor below that, where Laing and the other “middle-class” tenants all seem to cavort. What else about the high rise’s architecture, besides verticality, separated the rich from the less-rich? I wanted more about the home lives of the lower class. Or to see fights happen between floors, rather than just the aftermath.
Maybe a better way of putting this: The “class warfare” that takes place in this film could have happened horizontally, diagonally, or in any other configuration. It didn't really seem to matter that this took place in a tower, except that it's insulating and isolating. For a film called High-Rise, that was disappointing.
Brentin Mock: Real quick, Laura, on the “S.O.S.” note—that was actually Portishead! But yeah, talk about #views. As you note, Laura, it’s very much a penthouse-centric story, with few looks into what’s happening on the lower floors. Comparatively, you look at a movie like Snowpiercer, a horizontal take on class and exclusion, and that story is told from the view of the lower classes. I don’t think the POV from the top was a disservice to High Rise, though. The problems of the presumed lower classes, living on the lower floors of the high rise, were mostly muted to those on the top.
Bliss: Exemplified by Royal’s wife’s complaint about a maid she refuses to pay: “Like all poor people, she is obsessed with money.”
Mock: This reflects real luxury-tower living, even today, where the wealthy don’t even want to share the same door entrance as those living beneath them. In that sense, I feel like the building had to be vertical.
Meanwhile, I was waiting for some black, Latino, or Asian character to show up and got about halfway through before I realized it just wasn’t going to happen. This pissed me off at first, but by the end of the story it made sense to me. The architect, Royal, seemed to have designed the high rise without people of color in mind—which is problematic, but, again, a reflection of how luxury towers are built and designed in real life. People of color are not in the picture by design.
Speaking generally, the sight of a high rise for many black and Latino families, especially the working class, is an ipso facto signal that this is not a building they’d want to live in—or at least would not feel welcome in. The renderings of such buildings alone can send gentrification cues that this is not being constructed with people of color in mind, and is likely even to displace them. Whether this is a real or purely perceived notion, those signals exist.
What did you think about the use of architecture and place in the movie, Kriston?
Kriston Capps: There is a scene early on that made me think, “Huh, they are in the Watergate.” [Where The Atlantic and CityLab are headquartered.] Laing's neighbor drops a bottle of champagne onto his balcony from above. That's the central design conceit of this building, from what we can see of it: the balcony, these concrete balconies. Just like the Watergate! This movie is our workplace.
Otherwise, architecturally, the high rise itself is a bit hard to place. It looks to me like very typical work by SOM from the 1970s. Brooding, like the John Hancock Center or the Brunswick Building in Chicago. I went in expecting more of a statement about ‘70s London.
Bliss: Yeah, we don’t get much of that. Just one radio transmission from Margaret Thatcher at the very end.
Mock: Interestingly it was shot in Ireland, in Belfast, in some area that apparently still closely resembles 1970s London today.
There is one building I can think of that is like this building—doesn’t look like this building but it feels like it—the Renaissance Center in Detroit. It is a bonkers place. Seven interconnected skyscrapers, with retail facing inward, hermetically sealed off from the city. If you stay at a hotel there, if you’re there for a conference (I was there for a conference), you do not need to ever leave the building. You are maybe not supposed to leave the building. It is the coldest building I have ever seen, fortress architecture, nightmare material, designed to keep people out and to keep the people inside from seeing the outside. The high rise in this movie doesn’t look like the Renaissance Center, but I think this story is supposed to show a building that does something similar in terms of class.
But I couldn't trace what the film really has to say about class. I didn't get it. The closest I came to intuiting a class critique was the scene in the penthouse, when the character Pangbourne outlines a plan for the building after entropy consumes it:
Once we’ve dispensed with the likes of Wilder [a character from the lower floor/class who violently agitates the wealthy, top-floor residents], we play the lower people off each other. In short, balkanize the central section. We can then begin colonization of the entire building. Then I propose Royal here draw up plans to remodel the lower floors. Driving range. Cricket nets. Club house.
It seems important—he is spelling out The Plan. It's wartime profiteering. It's Robert Moses. But then the movie isn't really about that! When violence breaks out, it very quickly consumes the entire building. Maybe the broader idea is that complex, carefully constructed class systems are prone to fall apart quickly. The high rise was always going to fall apart, because that is what happens when a structure is so economically stratified. Does this sound like a thing? Kind of a Thomas Piketty thing?
Mock: That entire plan from Pangbourne was about remaking the lower floors, as if the chaos was purely of the lower-floor residents' making. There was nothing in there about what needed remaking at the top levels. Royal sewed it up near the end of the movie, where he finally declared his building design a failure. But instead of concluding how he might make things right with the people whose lives his design ruined, he went into some bullshit about how this was an opportunity for a new model and how those people could pursue "new beginnings" elsewhere. Typical urban-renewal shit.
Bliss: In the end, it's the women who wind up on top, caring for one another seemingly without regard for the class structure. But after so many scenes packed with sexual violence, the women's ascendence/transcendence felt like such an afterthought. Meanwhile, the film was so visceral—and not just in the bloodbath scenes. The slatted concrete walls, the sumptuous shag carpeting in Royal’s penthouse, the chewiness of Laing’s head dissections.
Capps: The texture is something that this film gets very right. It is rich to watch. Enough to give you a stomachache.