In Dredd (2012) law enforcement officer, Judge Dredd must work his way up a seemingly impregnable tower block, to bring the leader of a ruthless drug gang to justice. While the occupants of a modernist tower, in High Rise (2016), live in a self-contained world that rapidly descends into bestial chaos. Both these films are based on earlier works: Dredd on Judge Dredd the 2000 AD comic strip (1977), and High Rise on J G Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name.
Robert Laing, the central character of High Rise, works as a lecturer in a nearby medical school. Suffering from a post break-up malaise, Laing wants a quiet place to anonymously recuperate. We meet him on his balcony (a flash forward, three months after moving into the high rise), barbecuing a dog’s hind leg: obviously, something traumatic has happened, and he has ‘lost it’. Laing personifies the literary hero: vulnerable, reflective, an observer — other people do things to him. Dredd is the Hollywood action hero, a Dirty Harry-esque policeman of the future: tough, resilient, and emotionally closed off (literally, because we never see the face behind the helmet) — he does things to other people. Although very different personalities, neither of them change during the narrative: Laing goes insane but seemingly fails to discover anything apart from his ironic appreciation of the conveniences of modern living, which the high rise provides.
The modernist tower blocks, integral to both plots, are metaphors of a complete society, with all the amenities one requires. In High Rise the architecture of the building has ‘poisoned’ its inhabitants, contributing to their demented behaviour. The character Richard Wilder, a documentary film maker, blames the ‘The Architect’ and murders him.
The levels of the building symbolically represent class structure, with the upper floors reserved for the ruling elite. The drug gang overloads in Dredd inhabit the top floors, with the rest of the tower, fear-ridden and possessing the characteristics of a favela-in-the-sky. The tower represents the megalopolis, the dystopian city of the future, where extreme inequality, corruption and repression dominate. The building in High Rise replicates the class system of an English village-in-the-sky, complete with a quaint garden on the roof for ‘The Architect’.
The building acts as a visual motif, a marker for decay and social entropy. In High Rise the story chronicles the actual descent into chaos: in Dredd the corrupting downward spiral, the ‘poison’ of criminality, has already occurred — only Dredd can clean it up. Man’s inherent susceptibility to baseness, his weakness, provides the catalyst that ignites the ‘poisonous’ behaviour in High Rise — this threat lurks beneath the veneer of civilisation. In Dredd the allure of criminality has overwhelmed the building, turning it into a prison of brutality and fear.
Dredd is a classic hero who, ably assisted by a trainee Judge, is able to shape his world, to achieve his goal. Laing is shaped by the world around him, a victim of his surroundings. At best he might have had a lucky escape, and leave the high rise with some amusing, if not shocking, pub stories, but he remains in the high rise, a shell of a person, his sanity awol. His one achievement, of sorts, is that his contribution to the debauchery has been less extreme than most of the other inhabitants. His appearance at the beginning of the story, barbecuing dog meat, comes across as darkly comic satire, a literary motif, rather than being genuinely evil.
Apart from a pregnant woman, and a child, none of the other characters have any redeeming traits. ‘The Architect’, cut-off from reality, and lost in his own grandeur, saves Laing from being tossed over the side of the building — merely because Laing owes him a game of squash. Laing, obliterated by his experience, resigns himself to the anticipation that the second high rise will shortly suffer the same fate. While Laing ultimately blames ‘the building’ for his downfall, Dredd fights his way through it, using it, exploiting it, doing whatever he can to maintain his advantage, leading to a resolution where he ‘owns’ it. He clearly does not blame the architecture — he blames the criminals who enslaved the people.
How should we understand these stories? High Rise starts off as a celebration of modernist living, Laing literally hugs the concrete in his flat when he moves in — but it quickly turns into a nightmare, a warning. Dredd starts off as a warning, but gradually turns into a celebration of Dredd and the trainee, female Judge working with him.
Nothing can stop man’s barbarity, and stupidly, in High Rise, everyone is susceptible — even Laing. But in Dredd people choose between criminality, or being a law abiding citizen. And by working together, those who choose to uphold the law will triumph.