“There is almost no reason to leave. People from all walks of life are here too. There are many opportunities to make new friends, possibly fall in love. So why not join us? Joins us at the High-Rise” . Dr. Robert Laing
It was judged that an adaptation of the book ‘High Rise’ into film would be a near impossible task, and this has been near proven. While everything we see is bizarre, the metaphor for the class struggles in play is apparent, but only to a certain point. After the midway mark, the film self-indulges in the worst kind of uncomfortable imagery; not extreme enough to satisfy fans of the book, and too aimless for those who aren’t. High Rise might succeed in chilling us at its high points, but the climb to them is slow and arduous.
Dr. Robert Laing is new to the High Rise, ready to begin the next step of his life with a strong foot forward. His neighbours agree on the buildings wonder, and the benefit of their common backgrounds. But the architect has plans for the residents of the High Rise, and when residents begin to realize electricity is prioritized to those on the higher floors, friction begins to build.
While the structure of the original text might work in prose, its transition into film has been turbulent. The second half of the film, once chaos fully consumes the High Rise is both long and without a clear goal; making the Royal’s bewildered reaction to unfolding events more ironic than plot significant, as he mimics audiences. It’s greatest crime is lacking a sense of progression for us to cling to, a steady path to watch the impending and inevitable conclusion to the film. Instead, we are subjected to a string of scenes of residents attempting to cope day to day, which could have been reduced and still created the intended effect. Across these scenes, there is little advancement except for Wilder alone, who seems to challenge the state of the High Rise but when the camera so often forgets his struggle, it’s easy for audiences to forget why they are watching too. Similar with titles like ‘Saló’, viewers will be quick to pull away from the screen not in horror, but to question if their time is being wasted.
In contrast, the first half of the film maintains a solid advance. Laing’s behaviour can be attributed to loneliness as much as a need to belong, and the rising tension within the building is a clear force to overcome. While no less bizarre or inhuman, the characters pursue an objective to solidify their positions and status, pulling us deeper into the elements that pain and frighten them. This is enhanced by clever choice of shots. Laing’s autopsy demonstration at work is a perfect foreshadowing of what lies behind the skin, and his cold mechanical admission of it goes a long way in communicating his future ability to tolerate chaos. The following suicide scene, played in torturous slow motion mimics the underlying horror the residents fail, or choose not to see. At it’s breaking point, the party scene is lead perfectly with the line of storming children and Wilder at their head, throwing his arms about as they march to war.
The characters are difficult to resonate with, lacking most signs of natural human behaviour and emotion. This is tolerable when the plot is there to take over our attention, but the anarchy that follows leaves little to turn to. Laing’s third person narration and tenacity make for an unnerving picture, but hardly invites us to care. Without winning our emotional investment, every following statement within the metaphor falls flat, as the shock tactics lose their impact around characters we can’t care for. With some exception is the architect and Wilder, particularly with their first scene together on the bottom floor; both men to a small degree conscious of their own plight, which enables us to find some sympathy in their struggles.
While audiences might be gradually desensitized to the vast amount of terrible imagery, the film does manage to frighten in subtler ways. Wilder’s breakfast scene with Jane eating dog food, while both of them covered in blood after the implied rape, carries more punch than the film’s violent moments. Coupled with the news caster calling out to them from the upturned TV screen, and the eerie cover of the song ‘SOS’, it creates the film’s most chilling scene.
High Rise begins with high hopes and similar to the anarchy that ensues, crashes in its later half. Its costume, set design and cinematography are all excellent additions to a fundamentally flawed film, similar to Laing’s new coat of paint for his apartment to cover up the ugliness of the High Rise he lives in. There are scenes well worth watching in High Rise, that leave you terrified, or numb, or pitying; the difficulty is having the patience to wait through the lengths of torture to reach them.