When the High-Rise first trailer hit online, I knew I was going to see it.
It has been called the vertical Snowpiercer, which is apropos as they both deal with a similar idea but approach it in two different ways: Rich vs Poor.
Let’s start with some truths, when I finished watching High-Rise I did not like it. When I saw the rating on Netflix was at 1 & 1/2 stars, I felt that perhaps the audience who watched this film had missed something (These are the same people who have rated classic films, near masterpieces, at 2 & 1/2 stars. So yes, I think some of them might be thick). Then I watched the film and could see why it had earned the rating. From a gut reaction stand-point, which most people of today judge everything by, it was a bad film.
Then I thought about it, and 10 minutes later I found that I did really enjoy it.
Here’s why this film isn’t as digestible as Snowpiercer: It’s ugly. I don’t mean the design, cinematography, editing or direction; what I mean is that it paints an ugly picture of life. The fighting in it is not appetizing, the people in it are horrific, and the situation they find themselves in, while amusing at times, is just awful. It’s creepy and odd and doesn’t sit as well as Snowpiercer.
As I thought about the film I found the reason why it doesn’t sit well is that it is very near to reality. The film is fantastical in that people would remain in a bizarre, post-apocalyptic tower, but then again, people have actually lived in equally terrible places.
Let’s start by looking at the time in which the movie takes place, sometime in the late 1970’s. This isn’t some far flung future where humanity is boiled down to its barest of bones. No, this is a time that has happened and therefore places this tale firmly in the realm of ‘Yeah, this could happen.’ This is where the rise of our current consumer culture started and this idea is firmly planted at the center of the film. The characters in this movie, all of them, define themselves by their things and how they wish they could have more. The different classes constantly worry about the literal and metaphorical power in this film and try to out party the other class.
These parties are used to showcase power. By either their ability to be fun for everyone or by their exclusivity. The poorer class and the richer class battle by flexing their power to take over a space. Be it through enforcement of rules or sheer numbers.
And this is where I think High-Rise pulls ahead of Snowpiercer, the key element that probably earned the film its 1 & 1/2 star rating on Netflix: The middle class is portrayed truthfully. The billed chief protagonist, Laing, is the bridge between the two classes and tries to keep them in check. He tries to exist in both the rich and poor worlds, but doesn’t really seem to fit in either. When the world around him starts to go mad, he clings to the middle class life and tries to avoid getting caught on either side of the two warring classes.
This stance will be bothersome to most of the audience, who are probably middle classish folk. In most films of this nature, the guy in the middle chooses a side and leads the way against the injustice of this world; but here he doesn’t. Just like in the world outside of the film, the middle class wants status quo. It doesn’t want uprisings or threats to its lifestyle because it is comfortable. Anything uncomfortable is seen as a threat. It sees the point of the view of the poor, but then rebukes against it with how the rich see the world. Martin Luther King Jr. even said that moderate white Americans (or in this case, the middle class) are the greatest threat. Not the extremists.
I could go on and on for pages on the metaphors of this movie, specifically sex and wall paint.
Okay, let’s touch on sex.
Sex is about power, so the saying goes, but it truly is in this film. Laing beds two women in this movie and both withhold power from him. The first because he isn’t allowed to finish and is in fact ignored. The second because the act is fruitless as the woman is already pregnant and therefore nothing will come from it. On the upper floors, sex is meaningless as the people on top have nothing to compare it against. There is a seemingly constant orgy happening, and yet, no one seems to be having any fun. The expression on most of the guests faces is one of boredom.
Screw it, while we’re here, let’s talk about paint.
The paint scene in Laing’s condo is a moment of catharsis. He wants to be a part of one of the two sides, and this is reflected in his room’s lack of color. He wants to choose the right color. The right color would then place him into one of the camps and would reflect his character. Ultimately, his paint color is chosen, but it really isn’t a choice, as the tone he chooses is the only one available. He’s allowed the world to chose for him and when he applies the paint to his condo’s walls, he goes mad. He loses himself as he’s allowed the world to choose for him by not choosing at all.
By the end of the film, he’s become a servant to the building and no longer wishes to leave it because its insane system is the only system that makes sense to him. The middle class is one of adaptation, and it will adapt to the most insane of circumstances in pursuit of comfort and to belong.
In closing, finally!
You should watch the movie. Just see it and register your own opinion about it. In my humble opinion, High-Rise is like a classic novel while Snowpiercer is a popcorn flick. I love both, but enjoy both for vastly different reasons. To compare them at the surface is fine, but they are two vastly different beasts.
Written by Nick Mazmanian
Nick enjoys making things and drinking coffee, specifically the latter, for without it the former wouldn’t get done. He also wrote a book.