Movie Review: High-Rise (2016)
It’s unsurprising that the works of science-fiction novelist and satirist J.G. Ballard would eventually be prone to misinterpretation, mostly because it’s the fate that befalls most socially critical writers (who, after all, knows the proper use of the term Orwellian anymore?). It’s a problem rooted in the absence of context. Ballard—who died in 2009—wrote specifically in regards to his moment in time, which happened to be a reflection on the mod con ‘70s: the garish fashion, the economic disparity, the political upheaval, etc. Most admirers of the lesser known satirists’ deadpan dystopian fantasies have latched onto the socioeconomic conditioning of his novels, an attribute that was more familiar setup than an explicit condemnation, and have turned that feature into an overstatement of prophetic warning. But Ballard wasn’t at all interested in critiquing the period’s political minutiae or economic imbalance, because his investigative interest went well beyond political particulars and into venturing his true concern: technological alienation. That is, in essence, what his brilliantly prosed novels Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974), and High-Rise (1975) were tapping into, or mainly how the human psyche could be aggressively altered through the alienating conveniences of modern social conveniences and technological enhancements. Ballard wanted to explore the horror of complacent titillation, and—minus the incendiary and sexual adaptation of David Cronenberg’s Crash (1996)—that unique perspective has usually been ignored in his page-to-screen transfers.
And that’s the unfortunate outcome of Ben Wheatley’s latest adaptation of Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise, a revision that is reverent in its narrative accuracy yet equally muddled and obtuse in its thematic focus. Instead of exploring the novel’s psychological “inner space,” or in Ballard’s words “the internal landscape of tomorrow that is a transmuted image of the past,” Wheatley has aspired to a more passive agenda, that of anti-Thatcherism and plutocratic demagoguery. As Britain’s newly appointed savage provocateur, Wheatley would seem, on paper at least, like a match made in cinematic heaven to adapt Ballard’s work. His dark edge and unsettling sense of humor should have been ideal in translating the surrealist satire of the novel into the cryptic ramblings of an experimental visual artist. That outcome could have been easily deduced from his entire filmography, a catalogue of thought-provoking, disjointed narratives that evoke deliberate unease for its unsuspecting audiences, all of which include the crime thriller turned horror show in Kill List (2012), the brutally bleak comedies of Down Terrace (2009) and Sightseers (2013), and the psychedelic acid-trip visual kaleidoscope that was A Field in England (2014). But Wheatley, and his self-proclaimed egoistic title of artist, gets caught in the novel’s feature of overt class divisions, which has the unintentional effect of creating an anti-capitalist caricature of unsophisticated social symbolism. Since when is it considered art when your vision has the insightful depth of a lazy trope?
Whether you agree or disagree with the film’s supposedly Randian nightmare of laissez-faire hedonism and plutocratic control (a criticism even the filmmaker can’t levy with confident theory or articulate understanding), the film ultimately feels dead on arrival with its continuous tone of monotony. Repetitive in its chilliness, inert in its delivery of simpleminded themes, and languid in its pace, High-Rise does its message a disservice in making the entire experience unintelligible. Written by frequent collaborator Amy Jump (Kill List, A Field in England), the film follows the eerily composed physiologist Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a name undoubtedly linked to the controversial Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing whose groundbreaking treatise The Divided Self touched upon the relevant theme of madness. Haunted by the memory of his recently dead sister, Laing moves into the titular apartment complex of Brutalist concrete that offers self-contained gratification, where all of life’s conveniences and necessities are provided in this soulless modern metropolis. Within the building, each of the classes are divided up into various floor sections: the blue-collars (flight attendants, film technicians, electricians) make up the lower levels; the professional classes (doctors, lawyers, accountants) make up the middle, where Laing apathetically exists; while the malicious subjugating rich (tycoons, entrepreneurs, TV stars) make up the top floors, where the architect of the building Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives in his secluded penthouse. As Ballard ominously described the organic class level construct, “it’s a nightmare termitarium.”
Of course, the self-contained system of “pure capitalism,” according to Wheatley, begins to erode; there are frequent power outages, rotting groceries, violent outbursts for materialist ownership, and the occasional dog murder. The symbolism is so on the nose it could be considered pandering: the aristocratic oppressors entertain themselves with lavish costume parties, all while the lower levels fight, beat, and murder each other for simple items of convenience. Laing meanders through the chaos with a sense of indifference, an indifference assuredly aimed at our complacent conscience unwilling to see the impending dilapidation around us or any passion to invoke change in the corrupt system. Though some might find this antiquated revolutionary mindset admirable, one that has found resurrection in the temper tantrum antics of collegiate class warfare 101 recipients, it’s a rather shallow approach. It brings to mind Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer (2013), a film equally obtuse in analysis though far superior in presenting it with thoroughly entertaining, character-driven set pieces. Nothing is driven by character in High-Rise, but instead has chosen to present its message through a constant montage of visuals that immerse us into the tableaux of chaos that exists within the novel. In doing so, Wheatley makes it a passive experience that never actually brings us into its display of horrors. But the real issue the film has is in focusing on the class divisions as its leading cultural indictment, mostly because this means Wheatley has missed the point of Ballard’s novel in how human nature, no matter the social status, can be eschewed, altered, or morphed by technological influence. It appears for the first time in his career, Wheatley can’t justify visual experimentation and narrative incoherence as an artistic benefit.
Despite this drastic misinterpretation of theme, there’s definitely a desire from Wheatley and his creative team to capture the visual accuracy of Ballard’s novel in all of its intoxicating overindulgence. His film’s colorful visual palette and inventive designs bring to life the Ballardian dystopian fantasy of our nightmares: the retro-futurist interiors from production designer Mark Tildesley (28 Days Later, Sunshine); the luminous and surreal cinematography of Laurie Rose (Kill List, A Field in England); and the organic recreation of decadent orgies, translucent drugs, primitive violence, and caustic banter that Ballard’s novel envisioned as a dualistic environment of maddening chaos and suave bellicosity. Even the actors, from Hiddleston’s complacent indifference to Luke Evans’ wild anarchism, gives personality to an otherwise hollow picture. Unfortunately, this highly detailed reality is contained in a purely schematic narrative of incident, one that’s never triggered by any actual event or consequential decision-making, but instead transitions into relentless havoc and tribalism out of pure happenstance. The impact of the film’s message and the shock of its visual savagery is diluted by the knowledge of how everything will end; even in the film’s opening we see a glimpse of the future as Laing roasts a dog over a fire, a sight of brutality that is only surpassed by the peeling of flesh off a severed human skull. Because its shock wears off and its Hobbesian state is a foreseeable known, High-Rise’s science-fiction beauty is a fleeting feature that’s overcome by the film’s constant monotonous tone and a refusal to venture the more intriguing psychological “inner space” of Ballard’s novel.
But of course this all stems from trying to translate a work of the past into a prophetic warning of current times, which can be a deeply flawed undertaking. Political particulars aren’t necessarily transferable from a cultural moment of the past, but overarching themes can be, which is why ignoring Ballard’s intention would ultimately result in a flawed venture. Wheatley was clearly blinded by a partisan interpretation of capitalism (or should it be accurately noted as corporatism), where its supposed unfair tiered caste system and the control of plutocrats has become an injustice on our modern political age. It’s a vilifying tactic that is rooted in oversimplification (the constant mobility of the classes is an unspoken feature that deserves analysis), and it’s a message that has become an unoriginal repetitive refrain in most cinematic productions. But let’s say Wheatley’s condemnation is assumed correct in its simplistic theoretical application, what’s the alternative? If an unregulated, free market oriented economy translates into tribalism chaos, would a government controlled economy within socialism garner better, fairer results? Considering the real world housing crisis of socialist Venezuela and its own organic creation of a High-Rise self-contained living environment known as the “Tower of David,” it would seem that the shortsighted aim of Wheatley’s artistic perspective can be applied in a myriad of ways.
But while the politics are murky, and the theory is dependent on thoughtless platitudes, what’s truly unmistakable is the horridly inert and mind-numbing two hours that create the incidental events of Wheatley’s adaptation of High-Rise. Even if Wheatley’s condemnation was conceptualized with reason, his film is an incoherent mess that’s presented through wearisome montages of brutal imagery, displaced sequences, and indifferent performances. If the entire point of the film is to point to some sort of economic injustice, then it should be proposed that the interminable experience of High-Rise should be leveled to an equal injustice within some sort of agreed upon cinematic law & order. Narrative anarchy, irrational argumentation, and a lack of character are all minor offenses in their own regard, but combining all three should be tantamount to film homicide.