FREE FIRE And HIGH-RISE: How Ben Wheatley Builds Retro-Dystopia

Ben Wheatley takes us into the past to ask some hard questions.

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Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump are filmmakers obsessed with two things: people and history. Over the course of their time working together, they've used one to explore the other, usually with some not so pleasant results. Free Fire is their latest exercise in using a specifically retro aesthetic in order to paint an unappealing, yet prescient, view of people's more undesirable capabilities.

Free Fire follows on from their last work together, 2015's retrograde sci-fi High-Rise. Combining jet-black comedy with heavy-handed social politics and that '70s style, High-Rise is one of the more memorable and fascinating pieces of genre of the last few years. Led by Tom Hiddleston, the film gained wide plaudits and critical reaction because of how freshly it used tried-and-true techniques to create something that felt new and vibrant. There's nothing novel, especially now, about a science fiction dystopia, nor is there in a period piece – in combining them, though, Wheatley and Jump found a formula they'd been trying to find for years.

High-Rise, unlike Free Fire, isn't solely about the worst people trying to tear each other down, but it is about how people bring out the worst in each other, especially in close-quarter times of need. The movie takes the dystopia formula, inverts it, and then extrapolates both the beginning and end – in other words, we start at the dream, we're seen through the nightmare, and we're shown the rejuvenation and rebuild. Set during the 1970s, the film follows Hiddleston's character, Dr. Robert Laing, as he moves into this all-in-one apartment building that promises to be a society of the future. All shopping and amenities are handled in the one building, creating a microcosm society within society – all the inhabitants need to do is leave for work. When the power suddenly fails in the gigantic experiment, all hell gradually breaks loose as the patrons all start turning on each other and tearing each other down for resources.

What makes High-Rise such a fascinating, and quite difficult, thing to sit through is that part of its major underlying thematic structure is the idea that these people can all leave at any time. They can go get apartments elsewhere with the rest of civilization. In fact, some would be better off as their lives haven't really improved all that much – the building operates on a class system, so middle-class outside is still middle-class inside. But they don't, and that's not even an option any of them humor. They'd rather survive on finding drinking water and tinned food in ransacked apartments whose owners have been otherwise killed than leave. They'd rather live in this new society they signed up for than go back to living in the regular one, even if this new society has descended into pure barbarism with a lack of running water and clean clothes.

Free Fire is built similarly, except it uses the same device as a blatant source of tension. The characters, a set of gun-dealers led by Brie Larson and Cillian Murphy caught in a deal gone bad, are each trying to survive for themselves in a war of attrition and bullets. The stakes are simple, and they're fabricated – they could just leave the warehouse, but they don't. They're each too egotistical to do that, forcing themselves into their world they wilfully entered and wilfully helped construct.

The way Wheatley and Jump combine this kind of sociology with easily recognizable historical setting is hefty. On the one hand, it's the same basic kind of dystopic commentary we've been seeing for years now, but on the other it's delivered in a way that we cognitively see as being behind us. It's easy to watch The Hunger Games or a classic like Total Recall and think “we're bad, but we're not that bad” because those visions of mankind are out there floating in the realm of speculative fiction. It's harder to see the same kind of cruelty depicted with the flared jeans and groomed moustaches of the 1970s and unpack and rationalize it in the same way.

The seventies lend themselves perfectly to this by way of being far enough away to seem like distant memory, close enough to be uncomfortable in their honesty. Most audience members are only a generation or two removed from the decade of punk rock and 'Bohemian Rhapsody', and for many of us the art of that time is a core tenet of our cultural vocabulary. It's a decade heavily romanticized, which makes it a perfect one to use if one wants to challenge audience expectation and comfort.

Key too is the fearless closeness by which Wheatley filmed both Free Fire and High-Rise. Scenes and dialogue have a relentless sharpness, yet it's the camera-work that is most captivating. In both the camera sits in comfortable steady shots watching the various exchanges unfolding, never interfering, but making sure to get and maintain a keen view on things. In High-Rise, you're part of the furniture, watching this manufactured hierarchy burn itself to the ground. In Free Fire, you're a spectator, watching bloodsport among olympian narcissists in a quest for dominance.

High-Rise and Free Fire, with their aviators and wavy hair, have allowed Wheatley and Jump to finally nail their own code and build these smaller worlds that tell us more about our big world than we'd probably like them too, in a language we understand far too well for us to ignore.

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