It’s not often that a dystopian movie feels claustrophobic. After all, one of the most important things a film set in the future (or an alternate reality) has to do is to establish and explore the rules of its fictional setting. Very few dystopian films attempt to bring their worlds to life and keep their stories small at the same time.
But that’s exactly what High-Rise does. The divisive and underrated 2015 sci-fi flick from director Ben Wheatley manages to both present viewers with a believable vision of an alternate reality while also telling a story set in a single location. It’s one of the most unique and unnerving sci-fi films of the past decade, and it’s now available to stream on HBO Max.
Based on a 1975 novel by J. G. Ballard, High-Rise takes place in an alternate version of the ‘70s and follows the residents of a luxury, well, high rise. The tower, which separates its residents by their wealth (the richest live on the top floors, the poorest on the bottom), features its own supermarket and school, among other luxuries, providing every incentive necessary for residents to perpetually stay within its confines.
The more the occupants become insulated and accustomed to living only among themselves, the more their frustrations towards each other begin to take hold. The building is soon overcome with chaos and destruction as class tensions seize the minds of the tower’s inhabitants.
If big questions about privilege and property sounds like a lot for a film to cover in just two hours, that’s because it is a lot, but High-Rise does so in stylish and absurd fashion. Wheatley not only brings High-Rise’s building to believable life, but he manages to make the experience of watching the film feel as disorienting and unnerving as what’s happening to its characters.
He largely does so through the use of montage, which makes the lives of the film’s characters all bleed together until everything that’s happening to each of them feels like one single, continuous stream of madness. Whether he’s cutting back and forth from a raucous, overcrowded pool party to a quiet but tense dinner between two deeply unhappy people, Wheatley makes it feel like the film’s characters are always pressed together and at each other’s throats even when they’re not sharing the same physical space.
By packing the film with as many montages as he does, Wheatley collapses the space of High-Rise’s towering apartment complex and makes you feel just as claustrophobic as the movie’s characters. The film’s cast, which include stars like Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, and Elisabeth Moss, all manage to perfectly communicate the different states of aloofness and insanity that their characters swerve between throughout the story.
High-Rise may not be for everyone, but it’s the kind of stylish and experimental sci-fi film we rarely see nowadays. It’s full of daring performances and striking images, including a memorable moment where a man free-falls dozens of stories onto a car’s hood while his neighbors all drunkenly dance on, unaware of the similar fates that await each of them.
High-Rise is available to stream now on HBO Max.