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”, 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? http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/1820478.stm