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High-Rise Movie Review

Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Grade: C-
Director:  Ben Wheatley
Written by: Amy Jump from J.G. Ballard’s novel
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy
Screened at: Review, NYC, 4/26/16
Opens: April 28, 2016 on demand and in theaters May 13

If Ben Wheatley, who directed “High-Rise” and Amy Jump who wrote it were required to select a different title for the movie, it could be “Lord of the Rise.”  Remember William Golding’s blockbuster novel “Lord of the Flies” made into a film by Harry Hook sixteen years ago?  In that story a group of 12-year-olds, stranded on an island without the presence of adults, degenerate into a bunch of feral monsters.  But think again about “without the presence of adults.” Would adults even made a difference?  Not so according to Wheatley and Jump’s “High-Rise,” based on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel.  In the titled high rise apartment dwelling some time in the future.  The future is looked at from the point of view of 1975 as symbolized by the old fashioned TV screen. The adults themselves are symbolically and allegorically locked into their luxury apartment house. When a series of incidents occur, principally a power shortage that wipes out the lighting and elevator, the so-called adults turn on one another, but not until after they party party and party with sex as ubiquitous as the glasses of champagne. Why can’t they avoid the fighting by leaving?  Remember this is an allegory not unlike Luis Buñuel’s surreal masterwork “The Exterminating Angel,” in which the rich, unable to leave a party, lose the thin veneer of civilization.

In “High-Rise,” adults live in a futuristic, albeit col, luxury building, the real society folks on the top floors and pay obeisance to Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect who designed the building.  The lesser people live on either the middle floors of the bottom, a construction that will pave the way for both class warfare and a general breakdown of all civilized rule.

The high rise has everything you’d want: pools, a wide, well-lit supermarket, cool elevators that prefer to stay at the penthouse.  Depending on these technological conveniences, the groups cannot put up with the massive power failure.  The people in the building turn to the primal urges, though those start near the story’s beginning when party girl Charlotte Melville( Sienna Miller) drops a drinking class to the terrace one floor below where it startles the sun-bathing Dr. Robert Liang (Tom Hiddleston).  Shut out from the outside, people remain indoors, hunger sets in, and the trapped folks gleefully give in to the urges with free sex and the preferred interests of people, all-out violence.  Strangers are done away with, and even the good doctor, who smokes and drinks like someone in “Mad Men” or in the 1940s when cigarette companies assured all that tobacco was safe, abandons his patients.

All this sounds like a good dystopian drama, all based on a child’s view inside a kaleidoscope, which he calls a view of the future.  We’ve seen the theme before, a Hobbesian analysis of bellum omnium contra omnes, or “war of all against all.”

As you watch you may recall the section of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Pulvis et umbra,” in which he declares: What a monstrous spectre is this man, the disease of the agglutinated dust, lifting alternate feet or lying drugged with slumber; killing, feeding, growing, bringing forth small copies of himself; grown upon with hair like grass, fitted with eyes that move and glitter in his face; a thing to set children screaming.

Nonetheless, while the two obvious thematic elements are clear: a) humankind reverts to a state of barbaric nature; b) class warfare breaks out with contenders siding with their own kinds, “High-Rise” is simply unrestricted mayhem without  focus.  Praise is due for production design, with a particularly interesting baroque-style party going on in the penthouse and rows of cars seemingly from the seventies lining the lot outside.  But sex scenes, total warfare, jump shots depicting anarchy, do not in themselves make for an interesting movie. We’re left with just a muddle, a disappointment considering that the director, Ben Wheatley, was so successful with “Kill List,” about a hit man assigned to kill three people but lucks out.

“High-Rise” was filmed entirely in Northern Ireland.

Unrated.  119 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C-
Acting – C
Technical – B+
Overall – C


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Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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