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Tower Block Dystopia

In High-Rise, the initial glamour of 1970s modernism descends into decadence and violence.

The xkcd cartoon “Logic Boat” shows the familiar problem of the man who has to carry a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage across a river. The problem: “The boat only holds two, and you can’t leave the goat with the cabbage or the wolf with the goat.”

There’s a logic-puzzle solution here. There’s also the xkcd solution: “Leave the wolf. Why do you have a wolf?”

High-Rise is a dystopian science-fiction flick about an experimental skyscraper in an alternate-history ’70s Britain. Eccentric architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) designed the place so that every floor represented a rung on the socioeconomic ladder, like a vertical Snowpiercer train: rich folk in the penthouse, with a rooftop garden where Royal’s caricature wife rides horseback dressed as a shepherdess; maids and whatnot probably in the basement, not that we get to know any; everybody else precisely placed on the appropriate level in the middle.

We’re told, “Most people don’t care about what happens two floors above or one floor below them.” You can tell that that’s true, because in real life, when the cities started to go Charles Bronson, rich people left. Why don’t they leave the high-rise once the class war starts? Why do you have a wolf?

High-Rise is based on a J.G. Ballard novel, and its most striking characteristic is how much of a throwback it is. The ’70s aren’t just setting and costume. The whole emotional tenor of the movie is redolent of the disco era–and of Britain’s “winter of discontent.” The casual sexism, ecstatic violence, and casual ecstatic sexual violence are filmed pretty much exactly as they would have been in-period; you can bring your own critique if you want to.

These days we talk about globalization and the flight of manufacturing jobs. High-Rise recalls an earlier narrative, where social breakdown is linked with moral decadence. The ’70s are one long party that got out of hand. All the usual signs of decadence eventually emerge: wife-swapping, adults eating cereal, blood-spattered clothing, fires.

This isn’t a good enough movie; its plot is tangled, and it’s both overstuffed and thinly-sketched. It’s disingenuous to make a movie about society-wide class conflict where the lowest class we get to know is the educated professionals. (See Jamie’s comments here on the rhetoric of the “1%.”) Tom Hiddleston, whom I enjoyed in Crimson Peak, is wasted in a role where he mostly wanders around looking tormented. The final stages of societal breakdown happen in a muddled montage. By the movie’s final stretch the audience was so frustrated and confused that even very good lines (“This is my party… and I decide who gets lobotomized”) got zero laughs.

That said, there are some great images–the dentist’s Terry Gilliamesque flak jacket covered in dentures, the overbalanced cake plate–and some unexpected insights.

When the movie starts we know things will go horribly awry. Dr. Laing (Hiddleston) roasts his dog on a spit in the burnt-out, powerless building and muses that in some ways he likes it here in the post-apocalypse. Then we flash back to when the high-rise was new, a huge gleaming angular monster surrounded by parking lots, far from any city.

Royal says he “conceived this building as a crucible for change,” and the tenants were apparently carefully curated. (In one of the best lines of a movie with unnecessarily good dialogue, one of the inhabitants notes that Laing’s “tenancy application was very Byronic.”) Royal’s idea of literal and explicit class hierarchy + forced proximity seems so crazy that maybe he always intended the plan to fail. Yet he seems surprised when power outages prompt the building’s descent into anarchy.

Violent anarchy starts as a party, in fact a clash of two parties: a raid by middle-class children on a private pool party. Nobody is pursuing anything other than fun. I sincerely loved the way partying is used in this movie, as a kind of synonym for oppression and resistance: “We’ve got to show the lower floors that we can throw a better party than them!” It implies an ironic, amoral vision of politics which in our relentlessly moralistic age we find hard even to remember. And it makes sense when you notice that none of the adults have parents. The closest thing we get is Royal, who begat the building; they are all the building’s adolescent children, raised by the society Margaret Thatcher (more or less) said didn’t exist.

Lucien Steil’s presentation “Architecture Which Hurts, Architecture Which Heals,” underscores the ways Royal’s choices shaped his building’s eventual collapse. There is a parking lot wasteland instead of a courtyard, for example, and a lack of truly public spaces. (“I recognize you,” a higher-floor man says to a lower, “from the foyer.”) There’s a supermarket for consumption and a pool for leisure–that pool party encapsulates a lot of the movie’s themes. Parents organize as an interest group because children aren’t wanted: “The women round here would help the planet more by keeping their legs crossed.” (And yet there’s a kindergarten built in. Why do you have a wolf?)

The high-rise has no library, no place of worship. (Royal’s private penthouse includes art taken from museums.) It has no history–preserving a place’s history would open up imaginations, allowing the possibility of a life unshaped by the engineers; and it might lead to mixing income levels.

It has rules (you can’t put diapers down the garbage chute) but no responsibilities. There are no institutions to allow the practice of citizenship. For 10 years I lived in a block-long big box apartment hellscape and we at least had a tenants’ association, although I suspect the largest voting bloc was cockroaches. In Royal’s high-rise, parties are the only thing anybody organizes: the sole native form of leadership. So it shouldn’t be surprising when the final words of the movie are a radio broadcast from Lady Thatcher herself, as the voice of Judgment Day: “Where there is state capitalism, there will never be political freedom.” I suspect this is meant to be ironic, but it works without irony: Royal as capitalist head of state offered no options for political freedom; his tenant-subjects didn’t want it, so why include it in the lease?

The rich folk in the high-rise fled the city to live anonymously. The movie, which is shot entirely from within the upper middle-class POV, will never tell you why on earth they don’t flee the high-rise to live in a place with toilet paper. But if you’re willing to take it as fairy tale, its message is simple: You may no longer share a city with the wolf, but as long as you share a polis with him he is in your home. And one day he will open his jaws and vote you right up.

So maybe it’s not so retro after all.

High-Rise is a weird movie that hides its insights under a wrack of violent incident. It’s dumb in a lot of the ways that matter for audience interest, and unexpectedly smart in a lot of the ways that don’t. If you want a tower-as-microcosm movie with Reagan-era anxieties, though, you’re probably still better off watching Candyman.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith, as well as the author of the newly released novel Amends, a satire set during the filming of a reality show about alcohol rehab.

“New Urbs” is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.



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