HIGH-RISE

Film & TV, Latest Reviews May 3, 2016

Originally published and still available on Post-Modern Sleaze (02/05/16).

Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G Ballard’s iconic urban dystopia is a visual onslaught that chills and bedazzles. 

J.G Ballard once remarked in an interview that “In a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom”[1]and in an overwhelmingly invasive, capitalist, post-9/11 world it can be gleaned that the iconic science fiction novelist was not far off.

Since his death in 2009, society has fostered a new and unprecedented level of narcissism in a social media world where we, as users, are bombarded with a constant barrage of useless useful information and subsequently struggle to find our place within it. Austerity in capitalist nations sees the average Joe pretend and parade that he has when he has-not, whilst consumerism amongst the Jones’ has spiraled into the superfluous.

In its entitlement and consumerism it almost seems apt then that, nigh on 40 years since the novel was published and the film rights were bought, High Rise should be released now. Ben Wheatley takes obvious relish in the unveiling of this 70s imbued alternate reality, and it is heartening that so much of Ballard’s tone has translated onscreen; after all, not much can compare with the iconic opening of “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” Reflection doesn’t quite cover it, however, for as soon as Laing (Tom Hiddleston) steps over the threshold we are complicit in every fragment of the hierarchy, tension and debauchery as the web of this highly intensified microcosm begins to unravel.

Unspoken rule dictates that people only interact with one or two floors above or below their own, which leaves Laing in a pickle; he is staunchly situated on the 25th floor, high enough to avoid the power cuts but far below the crowning glory of the penthouse suite. In these upper echelons sits Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), the architect of the high-rise project who supervises the denizens of his creation like some godly hawk. His wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) is an afterthought, and spends her days flitting between their opulent penthouse garden and her lavish parties.

The inhabitants of the building live their days in a waking stupor, so surrounded by convenience and entitlement that their lives are but an extensive comedown. TV producer Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) is always chasing his next fix, be it a brawl or cheating on his pregnant wife (Elizabeth Moss), whilst Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) – the tower’s resident femme fatale – is borderline neglectful of her son Toby. They drink, fornicate and fight with repulsive zeal because it is the only time they feel alive, and they all nurture their own self-serving compulsions.

Which is all very well, in moderation, but perspective is soon lost. Said compulsion descends into chaos and anarchy ensues; lower level inhabitants ambush the rich in the communal areas whilst the rich enslave the vulnerable, riots arise and detritus spreads like some grim pathetic fallacy of the breakdown in the resident’s psyche. Hiddleston is quietly unnerving as the slippery Laing, who becomes increasingly erratic as the levels converge, with Evan’s Wilding emerging as the sole entity intent on cutting through the madness and exposing it to the outer side world.

Ballard was a forefather for futuristic dystopian fiction of his perceived “inner space”, and – in an age of technological development and unprecedented psychological consequences to which no one currently knows an end – High-Rise not only feels like an ominous prediction but also unerringly current. It is crammed with hyper-real symbolism and under Wheatley’s direction, the film is an audial and visual maelstrom of kitsch mania – a true visual delight, traversing the character’s banal days with their indulgent nights until the two close and finally merge. There are moments in High-Rise when the depravity feels overdone or unnecessary, and for the most part the frenzy is disorienting and officious, but surely that is the point, for after all, our present reality does not really fare much better, does it?[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/1820478.stm

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Comments 6

  1. Joachim Boaz says on May 3, 2016

    I am confused as to what this phrase means: “Ballard was a precursor for futuristic dystopian fiction.” So, he has merit as he was a precursor to some present trend? Or, he has merit in the time in which he was written and later proved influential? And how exactly is a 1975 novel precursor material, it’s certainly not “early”? And to what? Or perhaps, more aptly, the novel was “a highlight of 70s futuristic dystopia.”

    What do you make of the decision to “place” the movie in the past? Or rather, in Ballard’s near future (at least aesthetically). You mention the choice in passing.

    • Kayleigh Watson says on May 3, 2016

      Perhaps “forefather” would have been a better word: a precursor of a particular movement, e.g.. “the forefathers of modern British socialism”. So the latter of your two options. What I’m getting at is Ballard’s hyperreal social commentary of High-Rise could be interpreted as a possible worst-case-scenario for modern day society. I really liked the decision to place the film in the past, I think setting it in the present day may have detracted from some of the themes, for example the desire for social mobility and access to privilege in High-Rise could be interpreted as symbolic of British class struggle and, in the benefit of hindsight, we can draw extrapolated parallels with social mobility in Thatcher’s Britain (’79 onwards etc). When the mid-lower classes try to rise, the wealthy will always put them down in order to preserve their own status. The result to oppression tends to be aggression, so I personally think that in knowing how the 80s panned out with Miner’s strikes etc, Ballard’s work seems almost prophetic. I don’t think those connections would have sprung to mind if they had set the film in present day. Also, the building itself looks far more ominous as concrete, but aesthetically, the film in general is very striking. Thanks so much for commenting too!

      • Joachim Boaz says on May 9, 2016

        The reason I brought my first point up was that I don’t see that a lot Ballard’s radical views were carried on “in genre” into the 80s… The New Wave movement as a whole seems to have limited appeal to later authors (unfortunately!).

        I enjoyed how the filmakers decided to sort of have the “this work fortells Thatcher” moment. Although, sometimes I feel that this type of interjection plays into the notion of SF’s worth as solely predictive — which is bogus.

        And thank you again for your review…

      • Kayleigh Watson says on May 9, 2016

        I can totally appreciate that (on SF being “predictive”); I think what fascinates me so much in that is that at points you can recognise certain parallels with the progression in reality in some narratives, and that is both commendable on the author’s part, I feel, and plain frightening for the rest of us!

  2. Joachim Boaz says on May 17, 2016

    Also, the funniest (to me) critique of a book used by reviewers is the claim that something is impossible and will never happen (The Handmaid’s Tale (1984), Walk to the End of the World (1974), etc) but, in reality, the reviewer probably reads and enjoys SF with FTL travel, generation ships, etc. In short, it’s a super easy way for people to dismiss social critique that they find unsettling — hence my examples of radical feminist dystopias.

    So yeah, nothing bothers me more than “predictive” as a measure of merit!

    • Kayleigh Watson says on May 18, 2016

      Haha, I can appreciate that, but unsettling social critique is perhaps what I enjoy most in literature and SF extrapolates that in an interesting way. Prediction as merit is practically void isn’t it? Though I do commend recognising the less desirable traits of society and using them to inform their work by raising relevant questions, e.g. (in High-Rise) what are we, as humans, trying to escape from and why? Does this truly correspond with our own reality? etc

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