Empire State of Nature

High-Rise, Ben Wheatley, 2015

“How’s the high life?”

“Prone to fits of mania, narcissism, and power-failure.”

It might perhaps be appropriate to define the lead character of Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise as the building itself. There are numerous establishing shots in which the tower looms precipitously over the camera, teetering ever on the brink of collapse. The building is defined by newly resident doctor of physiology Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) as being like an organic body, but it is the clear intention of Ballard (and Wheatley) for the tower to represent a microcosm of our own society, similarly teetering on the brink.

Laing has moved into the high-rise in order to “invest in the future”, a creepily ominous phrase that would not be out of place on an advert for a post-gentrification apartment complex in the real world. But it is here in this self-contained universe that the seeds of society’s destruction are sown. The building carries a class system of its own, where those living on lower floors are the working classes, and those on the upper floors are the super-wealthy elite, presided over by the occupant of the penthouse and architect of the building himself, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons).

Initially the society seems like a utopic vision of convenience and glamour, even for those on the lower floors. Everyone has everything they need, and everyone has motivation to better themselves. They all desire to move up the floors, and taste the high-life of Royal and his allies. But when power-outages start to appear on the lower floors, the rosy vision starts to fade. Gradually the society descends into an animalistic orgy of self-interest, ultra-violence and reckless sexual abandon.

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Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in a rare moment of connection

Such a destruction of social structure was predicted by 17th Century political philosopher and Royalist sympathiser Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes proposed that, left unguarded and uncontrolled, humanity’s natural instinct was to kill or be killed. According to Hobbes, every action we take is motivated by self-interest, and when society is collapsing all we really care about is our own survival. We will be prepared to transgress all social boundaries in order to survive and have sex, reduced to our bestial “state of nature”. Hobbes’s solution to this instinct was to suggest that we need the firm hand of the king, or another kind of absolute sovereign.

In the first part of his great work Leviathan, subtitled “Of Man”, Hobbes draws a rather morbid picture of our human nature when faced with societal collapse:

“In such condition there is…continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

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A Marie Antoinette style party, highlighting social (dis)order

Indeed, such fear and danger is rife amongst the residents of the high-rise. There is grotesque violence, looting, and rampant sexual abuse, all handled with deadpan stoicism by the residents. When a child sees a severed ear on the floor, he is more bothered by the earring, and when a man commits suicide, the residents immediately make jokes.

It is worth noting that none of the characters is presented as a hero, and they are all, in many ways, defined by their flaws. They are all trapped in a system in which all they want is to clamber over each other, braying and chomping at the bit in order to “win”.

But for all that the film agrees with Hobbes about the symptoms, it disagrees in its diagnosis of the cause. For Hobbes, such a state was natural without hierarchy, but for Ballard, the state arises out of a sense of competition that is created by a capitalist hierarchy. In this sense, perhaps the views in the film are more in accordance with those of French revolutionary icon Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau rejected Hobbes’s suggestion that the “state of nature” was one of war, instead saying that people are essentially good, and want harmony, but that society drives us to competition. We start in a state of pure self-love in which we harmonise with the world, but as we start to integrate more with others we transfer our self-love to being one of an incessant need for self-validation. When we start to see ourselves how others see us, we yearn for control over others.

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Laing, reflecting

Royal remarks early in the film that his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) has a sense of nostalgia that she is trying to recreate in her top-floor roof garden. She seems to want to hark back to a time in her childhood when she felt free in the Eden-like purity of her family country home. Maybe she is yearning for Rousseau’s idea of her natural state, before she became corrupted by society. Nonetheless, such a situation can never be created in the barbarous and cruel world in which she inhabits.

Wheatley’s film is a relentlessly bleak view of social structure, but one that is perhaps necessary in teaching us how to interact with one another. If we constantly strive to be another person, and fight each other for power, then we are doomed to living in fear. If, however, we can accept ourselves for who we are, then maybe we can begin to live harmoniously. To do this, maybe we’d be better off in bungalows.

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