Movie Notes: “High Rise” (2016)

The central theme of nearly all of the novels and short stories written by the late writer J.G. Ballard is the ways the collapse of civilization might open up new avenues for personal growth and liberation- the fruitful side of apocalypse. With a dogged and obsessive focus, Ballard explored this theme in terms of ecological collapse, technological dystopia, crime, sex, the “death of affect” and the psychopathology induced by modern lives of great boredom. What Ballard seemingly carried from his childhood, in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion of the Second World War, was a sense that madness lies close to the surface of bourgeois life ever ready to burst through the cheap stage sets we call “civilized order”.

High Rise came third in a trilogy of novels dealing with the liberating potential of a new sort of urban alienation then coming into being. Crash explored the theme in terms of car crashes (and was itself turned into a film by David Cronenberg), while Concrete Island reset Robinson Crusoe on the plot of land betwixt and beneath highway overpasses. With High Rise, Ballard charted the new sorts of sociability and anti-sociability that might come out of the massive apartment blocks then arising in major cities as the social orders were becoming increasingly divided, isolated and hostile towards one another. Like many of Ballard’s books, High Rise features rich ideas, somewhat one-dimensional characters, surrealistic imagery, and a dark sense of humor. When things go wrong in Ballard’s books, they go very wrong.

It’s not his best book (to my mind, that would be The Unlimited Dream Company) but what the recent movie adaptation has done is to suggest that High Rise was much more prescient than I might have suspected, The filmmakers have made the interesting choice to set the film in 1975, when the book was published (and perhaps not coincidentally when Margaret Thatcher was first elected in Britain) to show the deeper roots of what might be described as a top-down engineered class warfare. The upper class (and upper floor) strivers who do combat with the rambunctious lower-floor agitators of Ballard’s fictional apartment block in hopes of instilling their own visions of order on a state of anarchy now seem like a metaphorical reflection of nascent neoliberalism and occupied Wall Streets. Perhaps Ballard, the so-called “seer of Shepperton”, was simply a little ahead of his time in envisioning a world to come.

Which is not to say we’re in the realm of social realism here. The slightly surreal, very strange story takes place in a massive Brutalist luxury apartment building planned by an aloof, slightly mad but visionary architect played by Jeremy Irons as a sort of social experiment. Everything is provided for the residents in the building, from gyms to grocery stores, and appears to be state of the art. Different social groups share the same building; the lower-classes are kept close to street level, while the wealthy live in the more-expensive higher floors with a penthouse for the architect and his wife and a roof maintained as a rustic estate complete with a white horse (who will eventually be eaten) and shepherdess costume in a clear nod to Marie Antoinette. Their last name is Royal, if the symbolism isn’t thick enough.

Into this posh hive flies a young doctor with no real attachments of affiliations, the sort of aloof observer at the center of all of Ballard’s work, played with the proper ironic detachment by Tom Hiddleston. Stranded about halfway up the building, he’s soon the plaything of socialites, an object of fascinated scorn for the upper class twits above him, and fascinated himself by the rabble-rousing documentarian below, played with the proper level of macho brio and sideburns by Luke Evans. The film does a good job of maintaining an atmosphere of tense strangeness and a sharp undercurrent of menace. With the social order of the building finally tips over into anarchy it’s not entirely a surprise.

It might have been rushed a bit however. The transition from the first half of the film to the second, from Apollonian order to Dionysian disorder, happens via an extended montage. We’re meant to believe that problems with the new building’s power failures and water shortages trigger the collapse of social norms as darker drives take over. Very soon the residents are beating each other senseless over groceries and engaging in wilder parties. The police seem basically uninterested (a clever joke I suspect about how much the wealthy can get away with) and the newly-savage residents keep going to work by day and engaging in orgies and bloody brawls by night. How the viewer takes this in all depends on how much reality they expect from their fiction. The tone is pitched somewhere between realism, satire, and rubber reality. So it’s perfectly Ballardian.

But does it get at any conceivable behavior? Should we expect the rich to mount raiding parties to lower income blocks when their champagne runs out? Certainly, it’s hard to wake up from this particular 70s dream to a world where the rich live in gated communities with private security forces and the poor in isolated fire traps and not think a bit of psychopathology and the old ultraviolence might be baked into the system. Working a blue collar job at an institution as intrinsically bourgeois as a university, I am very familiar with class resentments. However, classism seems to me to be something that moves with the most intensity directly downhill. Certainly, I have gotten occasional glares from random yuppie admins while doing my grubby work, but the people with a real axe to grind about cleaners are usually the secretaries. Meanwhile, my coworkers might snipe at “the rich” from time to time, but their deepest animosity is reserved for downtown panhandlers. Those directly below us on the social ladder are most often a source of anxiety and, thus, hostility. It’s easier to piss downwards than up.

To be fair, however, Ballard was British, the filmmakers are British, and this is a British movie. They have a far longer tradition of thinking about class than we do in North America, where we tend to view social class as a sort of temporary condition. Besides, Ballard’s work was always about uncovering the pathologies beneath our civilized behaviors. In the years since the book was written, the class system has proven to be sufficiently pathological in all reality.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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7 thoughts on “Movie Notes: “High Rise” (2016)

  1. I watched it a while back also and enjoyed it, but I have one reservation about the film, and one about class. I never got the impression that the film fully committed. Everything was hunky dory, especially the architect, story wise, but the casting choices left me a little cold. Too much a pretty boy, Hiddleston doesn’t strike me as fitting in with the tight, narrow world of a Ballard universe. Moss is usually enjoyable, but she comes across as too major an actress for such a minor role, slumming so to speak, just to get viewers. Minor criticisms, as it is nice not to have to wade through the jungle of superheros to see a decently filmed movie.

    About class though, I think one of the issues I had with it was there was only white characters in the film, if I remember right. I can’t speak to British sensibilities, but as an American this struck me as odd. Class and race are so intertwined here in the states that it really took me out of the picture at many times when these issues were contemplated (at a remove) in the film. Dunno, maybe just me.

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    • About class though, I think one of the issues I had with it was there was only white characters in the film, if I remember right.

      Haven’t seen the film, but I had a similar thought while reading the post, in particular the part about violence being baked into the system. There are some examples of the upper classes using violence systematically against the domestic poor in the United States (Pinkertons and union busting type stuff), but the overwhelming majority of historical U.S. instances of systemically deploying violence has been done in the service of white supremacy; pushing Native Americans off of their land, enslaving Africans, the kind of crap that Joe Arpaio was up to in Maricopa County. There are lots of folks who want to take those things and wrap them up in narrative that is primarily class conscious, which I think is a mistake. Also, I guess this is what motivates a good deal of the political left’s incessant bickering.

      Also, related:

      Meanwhile, my coworkers might snipe at “the rich” from time to time, but their deepest animosity is reserved for downtown panhandlers. Those directly below us on the social ladder are most often a source of anxiety and, thus, hostility. It’s easier to piss downwards than up.

      This is why I think trying to focus efforts on ameliorating income inequality over focusing purely on making those at the lower end of the spectrum objectively better off is largely a mistake. Most people don’t care all that much about “the billionaires” or even the 1%. They save the bulk of their resentment for the folks that have a bit more than they do, the guy living next door with the nicer house and the newer car. And most people don’t look their nose down at the Indian street urchin, but at the folks just a bit worse off, the guy who graduated from the same high school and who peaked in 11th grade or the folks from the wrong side of the tracks in the same small town.

      The chances for coordinated class action are slim, mostly because people’s class anxieties are far from coordinated.

      I am thinking that the combination of the two points above largely encapsulates why my own politics have never leaned left.

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      • Here in beautiful Ontario, a lot of the class resentments are really just about mobility, lack of. A fairly easy way to ameliorate it is just to give people chances to move up a rung. Conversely, give them government checks periodically, which seems to be the chosen solution most of the time.

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        • I’m not convinced that it’s that simple. I rarely see political resentment that isn’t co-mingled with personal resentment. Globally, the new right is being fueled by angry mostly-white folks who feel like they’ve been left behind by the machinations of some globalist elite. And part of it is that the factories don’t employ as many people and unions aren’t as strong as they once were and the returns to increasing productivity are increasingly accruing to capital, but it’s also that now it’s not enough to just be a white American/”insert whatever nationality here” male and these folks have to compete with women in the workforce and black and brown people moving up the economic ladder and the rest of the world’s economies converging and competing. And as much as our political conversation wants to pretend those two categories are mutually exclusive, they’re not.

          Also, as an American, I’m use to people using Canada or Western Europe as the foil to our dearth of a welfare state and labor regulations and the like. And yet, here you are telling me that Canada has the same problem. And the French can’t seem to go more than a few months without striking and setting something on fire. All that tells me that increasing entitlements and enacting stronger regulations is a temporary fix at best. Sooner or later people’s expectations will reset and they will start demanding more from the government.

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          • Well… sort of the same problems. It’s really hard to get a good job here, but there’s lots of government assistance at all levels. So they pay us not to throw trash cans through windows and we don’t. Win-win.

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  2. I’m not old enough to remember how quickly we can get from “meh, this sucks, I guess” to “it’s happening” but it rare for me to find a story that plausibly gets from here to there.

    But if I can abandon “plausibly” for a moment, man, that chord resonates, don’t it?

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