Traditionally, the ideas of utopia and dystopia seem like polar opposites – one is a world where all ideals are achieved, and the other is the darkest imaginings of what humanity could come to. However, there is some media where one begins to bleed into the other, and High-Rise was a prime example.
In this whirlwind feature, we see Dr. Robert Laing move into the swanky new high-rise in town, where he enjoys all of the more carnal pleasures in life, with access to all the drugs and sex he could possibly want. Initially, his situation seems like a utopia. His social life is a bit lacking, sure, but that’s hardly stopped him from enjoying himself. As the film goes on, however, conditions in the tower begin to degrade; the rich dwellers of the upper floors are engaged in a war with the poorer people from the lower floors, everyone is turning on each other over everything from resources to petty disputes, and everything basically breaks down. There are no more rules, no more manners, and they all conduct themselves like animals.
So really, the question here is whether this feature is showing us a utopia or a dystopia. A good argument could be made for both, I suppose, but some of my previous reading has put me firmly in the dystopia camp. What book changed my mind? Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley.
This novel features a seemingly utopian society, where everyone has food and a home, everyone is nigh constantly doped up or high off of government-issued drugs, and everyone has sex with everyone else. The way this society lives on a regular basis is very much the same sort of lifestyle that Dr. Laing experienced in his new residence. However, as in High-Rise, the reader discovers that the society of Brave New World is not as ideal as it seems. People who spend time alone, people who think, are considered outsiders who shouldn’t be trusted – one character in High-Rise specifically points out that Dr. Laing spends a lot of time alone and remarks that it makes Laing dangerous. People of a certain appearance and temperament in certain castes are looked down upon by fellow caste members, emotional attachments and marriage are taboo, children are grown and conditioned instead of birthed and loved – the list goes on. The society of Brave New World is not as wonderful as it tries to pretend it is.
There were two key scenes that really stood out and led me to notice the parallels between these two pieces of media: the moment when Charlotte’s son, Toby, walks in on her and Laing while they’re having sex out on the patio, and the reaction of various partygoers after Laing’s student commits suicide. The first really struck me because, yes, sex had been treated rather flippantly throughout the movie, but to brush it off so casually after a child walks in on you just floored me. This carefree attitude towards sex reminded me of the group orgies that were so popular in Brave New World, where sex is treated with the same level of flippancy, regardless of who is or isn’t watching. It’s at this point in High-Rise the viewer can see just how far removed from normal societal conduct the residents are, and can witness the beginning of their descent into anarchy.
A similarly indifferent attitude follows the death of Laing’s protégé, who throws himself from a balcony during a party and only gets what basically amounts to a “Bummer, oh well,” in response. Dulled by drugs, alcohol, and the lax rules of their existence, that’s about the most the residents can do. None of them had any kind of deep connection with him, despite him living there and clearly having certain people he talked to. The attitude towards death in Brave New World is rather similar, since nobody there has any family, and emotional connection to anyone is taboo. No matter which group of people is doing it, however, it’s deeply disturbing that a person can simply die with absolutely no fanfare or grievance.
Essentially, while the societies in Brave New World and High-Rise seem utopian on the surface, cracks quickly emerge in those facades to reveal the rotten dystopian core they try so desperately to conceal. All of the inhabitants continue going through the motions as though nothing is wrong, but as the viewers, we witness firsthand the downward spiral these two worlds slowly fall into. We need only take a passing glance at the lives of these characters to come to the decisive conclusion that they don’t live in paradise, but a hellish prison of their own making.