Wednesday 20 July 2016

Review: High-Rise

Year: 2016
Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay: Amy Jump
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes

Synopsis is here:

The blandly branded products that litter the flatly lit supermarket hint at Alex Cox's Repo Man (1984). The setting as well as the loss of mental faculties and civility hark back to Cronenberg's Shivers (1975). However, at the dark heart of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise seems to nod more than once to The Shining (1980). It is much like Kubrick's adaptation in that it's an altered take on a well-known book. The isolated setting and claustrophobic feel also owe a lot to the auteur’s work. Only here, the ghosts in the machines and manic possession have little to do with the supernatural, they are man made.

Those who haven’t picked up J.G Ballard’s disconcerting novel, may find themselves at a loss to Wheatley’s new feature. A lurid tale of materialism gone mad, High-Rise follows Robert Laing, a grieving doctor who moves into a brand new, luxury High-Rise skyscraper with a broad band of professionals. Along with the other residents, he quickly becomes seduced in a world of all night parties, classist hierarchies and disintegrating social and moral etiquettes. The film is never truly explicit about why such a decent into madness would occur. Like all of Wheatley’s work, High-Rise slices at the specifics. Yet, like Ballard’s impish novel, it never feels hard to peer in-between the lines.

Those who know Ballard may feel that his caustic, matter of fact prose and eye for detail is lacking slightly. While kudos must be given to screenwriter; Amy Jump, for squeezing as much juice out of the orange as she can. There is, of course, as with so many novels, always text that can often help fill in the cracks and spike the imagination. Ballard’s canny way of getting his unhinged characters to justify the insanity as somewhat normal, is hard to replicate. It’s hard to imagine anyone being to get it right. Although I do feel that David Cronenberg, who dealt with Ballard with his adaptation Crash (1996), manages to capture the cynical, distancing tone and psychology of such characters a little better than Wheatley, whose High-Rise holds one or two elements within it not to have its viewer shirk with total despair despite its brutality.

That said, Wheatley along with his long time running cinematographer buddy Laurie Rose, not only capture the feel of the 70’s with flair, but capture the book images that I thought only resided within my head. The details in the design and setting along with the execution of certain sequences are near note perfect. The images linger long in the memory, as well as what they represent. Scenes such as the higher classes, debating with what to do with the rampant and primal filmmaker Richard Wilder (an excellent Luke Evans). Observing the richer types holding a high class party while having classical music covers of Abba tracks, nails the false belief that those at the top have over the bottom perfectly. That even popular culture must be "cultivated" correctly.

The decent into madness will lose some, but for me it was easy to tap into the film's observations on the culture of self. Looking at the behaviour in High Rise in both the film and book and watching at how politicians and celebrities act now feels even more relevant. Hell, watching High-Rise at times reminded me of the so-called "film twitter" at its most anarchic and base. A struggle between basement feeding bloggers (hello) and the "real" writers who only ever deal in snark.

Even the high-rise itself; a grinning beast of architecture, is the perfect metaphor for how many view today. Fear of our neighbours, modest grievances being the worst things in the world (first world problems). Classism running wild. High-Rise features much of this, although it's easy to see how some viewers will still question the logic of the film, despite the fact that even the characters themselves detail that reasoning accounts to very little.

The film does what decent Sci-fi should do. It finds the human element or as the cynical architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) remarks the “missing” element. High-Rise suggests that if given a utopia, our baser urges will help clamber to destroy it. I adore the fact that the film retains the book’s 70's setting, along with a white, middle-class population that still seeks to destroy itself. Not because I enjoy Caucasians tearing at each other, but because it highlights how easily the fear of the other is embraced. That if we're to have everything we ever wanted. We would still hunger. We would still rape. We would still destroy. All it takes is some decent time at the swimming pool.

Wheatley’s film is not only a return to form from his bizarre and distancing experiment A Field in England (2013), but it plays out as a cinematic representation of Marina Abramovic’s recent performance art, or even an update of Jane Elliott’s eye colour experiment. Ballard may still hold more acidity, however, Wheatley’s adaptation is a brutal reminder of how our desires of materialistic and the carnal can reduce us to the simplistic and primal beasts we try and hide with our so-called civility.