The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

A Dirge for a New World


Empire Design

Empire Design

Andrew F. Sullivan, author of ultra-violent urban noir WASTE,1 reviews Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of High-Rise by J.G. Ballard for TIFF.Net:

Wheatley and Ballard point to a pattern—a dissolution of social order that cannot be prevented by technology or progress. Even the most unnatural setting seems to only drive humanity back to its base needs—food, water, shelter, flesh. The past, the basest parts of being human, carry more weight than any building, any new technological development. Elevators become new traps for the hunters. The supermarket on the seventh floor is one last place to forage. Even the soundtrack reimagines this future past for the audience, Portishead performing ABBA’s pop hit “S.O.S.” as a warning for the residents and viewers alike—a dirge for a new world.

Residents begin to harvest the building itself for what they need and reject the outside world. Wheatley’s design team has mimicked the 70s-era incredibly well, but everything is innovative. The products and designs on the shelves are made specifically for this brave new world. The future is behind us. The high-rise becomes a place unto itself—a slow motion horrorshow.

Much like his previous work, Wheatley refuses to provide a straight narrative for the audience and at times, the film descends into an anarchic blend of images without the rules to bind them—as it should. We scurry past a horse on a rooftop, a gang of TV presenters armed with baseball bats and chair legs, a dog drowned in the pool. Parties turn into rituals, sacrifices, religious ceremonies and then dissolve back into chaos once again. Wheatley’s camera starts out sleek and mannered, transitioning smoothly from one floor to the next. However, once the social order slides, the narrative structure breaks under the strain. Viewers slider from one party to another, the camera following bodies as they rise and fall. The film itself opens with an ending.


Edwin Turner has also written about High-Rise at Biblioklept. Ed’s opinion of the movie is less favourable than Andrew’s, but his post also pointed me to Tasha Robinson’s interesting review of the film at The Verge:

There’s a touch of Luis Buñuel’s ‘Exterminating Angel’ in the way everyone in the building seems to be stuck there, isolated from the outside by mutual consent, for no reason anyone cares to address. But Wheatley’s visual style never feels beholden to Buñuel. It’s more familiar from 1960s speculative-fiction films. The Brutalist architecture and cold sterility of the building suggests Jean-Luc Godard’s ‘Alphaville,’ and the polished futurism and stiffly remote characters are reminiscent of François Truffaut’s ‘Fahrenheit 451.’ The retro cars, suits, and architecture all put ‘High-Rise’ more in a quaint, remote past than a dystopian future. They also add to the sense of otherworldliness that hangs over the film.

And so does the sense that High-Rise is driven more by Wheatley’s poster-ready striking images —€” a suicide falling from a high balcony in ultra slow motion, Laing expressionless and spattered with paint — than by any sort of human drives. “Laing would surrender to a logic more powerful than reason,” Hiddleston narrates, hand-waving away any irrational behavior. No one in the film really operates on reason, they just represent emotional factions. Wilder becomes a feral, untrustworthy spirit of the denied and oppressed. Ann becomes an equally monstrous symbol of the selfish, out-of-touch aristocracy that actively enjoys spitting on everyone below them. Both sides are poisonous. Laing isn’t an innocent caught in the middle, he’s desperately looking for a place to fit in, and his narrative isn’t about saving anyone, not even himself.

Empire Design

Empire Design


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1. disclosure, WASTE is distributed in Canada by my employer PGC Books


  1. Thanks for the review, I smell a “classic”. Sleeper at the very least.

    It is good to see the word Brutalist used in reference to the architecture. For true Brutalist forms reference the concrete atrocities that were pumped out in the old European Soviet bloc. It’s what Orwell warned us about in 1984. “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

  2. ‘Brutalism’ is thought to be an adaptation of ‘béton brut’ the French for ‘raw concrete’ — a term used by Corbusier. It wasn’t necessarily a criticism.

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