Wednesday, September 14, 2016

What's on Netflix?: HIGH-RISE

Welcome to another installment of WHAT'S ON NETFLIX?, where we pick out a film or series currently playing on Netflix and review it for the fans. This week's selection is the dystopian drama...HIGH-RISE.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. We all know or have met someone like this: they'll watch movies, but all they seem to do is complain about them. Whether it's the simple plots, or the glut of special effects, or whatever other modern cancer blights this otherwise pure and noble art form, this person will eagerly bemoan the sorry state of the modern cinema to whomever will listen. "If only there were real movies made today," they say, as their eyes gaze back into an idealized past and they pine for halcyon days of small budgets, analog cameras, and the reassuring flicker of the cigarette burn.

Watching High-Rise made me think of these despairing souls, because High-Rise is the kind of "real" movie I would like to challenge such people to watch. Its budget seems to be acceptably small by today's standards, I think, at only eight million dollars US. Practical effects abound. There are no explosions nor car chases - there's only one short scene involving cars in motion at all, in fact. But most importantly is the story. The story of High-Rise is rather like the concept of a Rubik's Cube: easy to explain, but deceptively hard to resolve. I've watched the movie twice, now, and I still don't fully understand it. There are symbolisms and statements being made here that continue to elude me, but I think I have something of a grasp of the fundamentals beyond what happens on the screen alone.

Tom "Loki" Hiddleston stars as Laing, who moved into Tower One of the five-tower high rise complex three months previously, when the building was still pristine and life was, on the whole, good. Now the building is the kind of slum tenement shambles only a Detroit city alderman could love, and Laing, we are told, has found his bliss. And so the story backtracks those three months to tell of how things got to this point.

The first bit of symbolism, and the only bit the movie bothers to spell out for us, is the building itself, which serves as a metaphor for a class-based society. The floor of the building a given resident lives on is a direct indicator of social status, from the poorest residents on the first five floors, to the wealthiest on the top, forty floors above. The building is completely self-contained, with all the amenities the residents would need, up to and including a grocery store, within its walls. The only reason people need to leave at all is for their respective jobs. This being a new building, there are still some kinks in the system, particularly power failures, which apparently are a common annoyance. We learn that when theses outages occur, it isn't uncommon for the lower floors to see longer delays to have their power restored than the higher floors do, and naturally the people who live on these lower floors are none to happy about that.

So it might seem that High-Rise is set up to be another tale of the have-nots rising up in brilliant revolution against the haves, and there certainly is some socio-economic pushback involved in the story. But I think to characterize the movie this way misses a couple of key points. Yes, the people on the higher floors do lord it over the people on the lower floors. To put none too fine a point on it, the people of the upper floors are insulated, bourgeois swine who know little of what goes on outside their world and care less. There is nothing to like about them. That said, though, the people of the lower floors, who would probably be described using words like "decent", "honest" and "hard-working" in certain circles, seem to have little respect for the things around them, either. They certainly fail to show appreciation for what they have. Reference a scene in one of the lower floor apartments, as a mother catches her son carving a profanity into her table top with a pen. Her reaction? "That's not how you spell 'arse', sweetheart."

And this is the real reason everything goes to hell in the high rise: the people who live there, rich and poor, refuse to take responsibility for their lives. When the power goes out, both sides pass the time by throwing ever wilder parties, assuming that someone else will put things right. And this assumption persists, even as the microcosm of human society contained within the building degenerates to the point where human beings are being traded for food. Pursuit of pleasure is the supreme goal for these people. Let someone else handle the work. And even if they did decide to take responsibility for their own lives, it's suggested that they don't know how. The people of the upper floors are at a loss as to how, exactly, to use a market. This, and the looting that breaks out in the market as the situation deteriorates, suggests that not even the people of the lower floors understand what it takes to keep a market stocked with goods.

The second thing I noticed as I watched this movie, after the shortage of responsible individuals, is that no one ever leaves the building, no matter how deplorable the conditions within become. Why this is the case is never clearly explained, except in the case of Laing himself, who we are given reason to believe suffers from agoraphobia. He's prone to panic attacks the farther away he is from his apartment. There's no apparent reason anyone should remain; as far as we can tell the world outside the high rise is in no better or worse shape than it ever was. Again, though, we are given clues that the people living in the building have convinced themselves that they are better off within its walls than without. I suspect if we were to ask one of the people why they don't simply leave, we would get some vague justification about how "things are even worse out there", or a bland declaration that this is "their home", as if that trite emotionalism could clean their floor, or put food in their mouths.

So the message of this movie, at least what I could get from it, is that we all must take responsibility for what we have and not rely on the largess of others. But again, there are parts of this movie that go over my head. The story is based on a book of the same name written in the 1970s by JG Ballard (which, full disclosure, I have not read); is it an allegorical support for Margaret Thatcher's efforts in those days to steer Britain away from its unsustainable welfare state? This would explain why the movie ends with an audio clip of a woman who I assume to be Thatcher speaking about Capitalism. What does the boy, Toby, the only child, indeed the only character who seems willing to do the work necessary to build anything, represent? What does it mean that, in the wake of total societal collapse within the high rise, Laing is finally accepted into the ultra-elite world of the fortieth floor, now as rotten and deteriorated as the floors below it?

High-Rise is a great Gordian Knot of a movie, and not one to be consumed lightly. This movie expects a lot from its viewers and offers precious little from which to start. If you want a movie to unwind to, steer well clear of this one. On the other hand, if you want to make the film snob in your life put their money where their mouth is, ask them what they thought of it. I've got twenty bucks that says they'll grunt something about poor people kicking some rich white ass, and then go back to complaining about Suicide Squad. But maybe they'll surprise us both.

High-Rise is rated R for violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language and some drug use.

Robert's Score: 7/10

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