Film Review – High-Rise
Our comfortable little lives are built on waste, corpses, and ecosystem-destroying carbon emissions. Those words are as easy for you to read on your slave-built mobile phone as it is to write from my own slave-built machine, the horror amplified all the more by the dissonance between comfort and terror.
J.G. Ballard spent his career evocatively describing the violence polite society seems to desire and on which it is built. “The suburbs dream of violence,” begins his 2000 novel Kingdom Come. “Asleep in their drowsy villas sheltered by benevolent shopping malls, they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.” That quote was plastered around London in 2012 by the British Library for their “Writing Britain” exhibition, around when I read Ballard’s novel High-Rise. The new film adaptation is an effectively vivid realization of the book, with one of its most distinctive creative decisions being it’s most obvious: crystallizing the novel’s hellscape-in-a-bottle into a specific story set in London, England.
The people behind the High-Rise film are a dream team of who I’d want making an adaption. The movie is the fourth comic feature-length collaboration among director Ben Wheatley, writer Amy Jump and cinematographer Laurie Rose. Their work and Ballard’s have similar dark, grotesque comic tones and sometimes hazy narratives, in which the story flows as atmosphere punctuated by incidents. I mean – damned if I could follow the specifics of the period-patois dialogue in A Field in England (2013), but that didn’t seem to be necessary to ‘get’ its unnerving, semi-comic tone. I’ll leave it to the reader to interpret rather this is a weakness – and if so, whether it’s mine or the film’s.
Similarly, the joys I find in Ballard’s novels lie first in language and tone; definite things happen, but they are often swept along by the general mood of the proceedings. Ballard’s output was voluminous – 19 novels and a thousand pages of short stories. Many of the short stories were poetic tales of isolation on vast desolate landscapes; his novels turned that alienation inward to inter-personal violence in small spaces. It’s a fair critique that the individual stories’ dream-like internal mood extends amongst his collective output, which flow together in their escalating violence and themes of technologically-enhanced alienation. His characters in the isolated [jungle encampment, flooded city, crystal forest, space station, shopping mall, traffic island…] descend into primal violence because that’s the way of the world and Ballard stories. The high rise building is perhaps Ballard’s most literalized metaphor for social violence, a satirically expressionist bottle episode of socio-economic stratification in which upper-floor residents live a continuous bacchanal, the lower floors live in resentment, and no one leaves as the trash, bodies, and dog meat pile up.
When I write the story is Ballard’s “most literalized” tale of social violence (‘moving on up’ is a physical prospect here), that isn’t a backhanded compliment: the high rise itself is an effectively-contained narrative structure as much as a physical one. Blunt expressionistic metaphors of class struggle can make for visually visceral cinema, as they did in the spectacle of Metropolis (1927) – with its posh gardens above ground and workers literally toiling below the cityscape – and the gleeful gross-out Marxism of Society (1989), in which ass-faced bourgeois creatures consume their social inferiors in a gastro-sexual orgy worthy of Ballard himself.
Despite my Ballard fandom, I’ve never sought out David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash (1996) in part because I’ve feared the writer and director’s convergent, unnerving sensibilities would make the whole thing feel too literal on-screen. Without Ballard’s prose guiding the proceedings, would the director be able overcome what they shared enough to make something cinematically distinctive? That fear is partly realized in Wheatley & Co’s High Rise, which is so thoroughly loyal in tone and story that you might as well be reading the book, but produces more striking imagery than elaborately-choreographed set pieces (on a related note, the film’s poster is brilliant). The film plays to book’s strengths, but doesn’t necessarily paint dynamically beyond the tableaus established by the book.
The high rise and its décor are functional concrete and stylish sharp angles. The oceanic parking lot around the building is an amusing, horrifying gag of isolation. The residents flow from party to party (foppish French costume balls, orgies, children’s parties…) and room to room (the tower’s grocery store, individual apartments, its increasingly decrepit swimming pool…). To quote the book: “These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.” A child half-vacantly watching the proceedings provides an effective visual motif, humorous in it’s detachment yet dramatic in his contrast – how long can he watch until he becomes involved? Tom Hiddleston’s Dr. Robert Laing, similarly, is perhaps most effective as a motif, an observer more than an active agent. For that matter, so are most of the characters, who observe until they’re caught up in the momentum of the underlying violence of the system.
What I found the film’s most intriguing creative decision is how thoroughly English the adaptation is. This may not at first seem that surprising: the key cast and crew are English, and the book was set in London. Yet (in an interview I’ve been unable to re-locate) I recall Ballard describing his stories as not seeming particularly “English”, noting Cronenberg’s adaptation moved Crash’s setting from London to Toronto without much alteration. Ballard’s life experience was multi-national. His parents were English, but he grew up an expat in Shanghai; his family’s time in a World War II Japanese-run prisoner-of-war camp the subject of Empire of the Sun (1984), made into a movie by (American) Steven Spielberg in 1987. After the war, he went to live in England, a ‘homeland’ he had theretofore never seen. Alienation from one’s surrounds is a recurring theme in his work – as he wrote of his own experience – “the English landscape was the only landscape I’d come across which didn’t mean anything” – a statement more about his relationship to the landscape than a blanket about that particular landscape itself. His stories generally don’t feature many direct culture references, and the pieces of pop that show up tend to be obscene, extended riffs on globally-recognizable American figures like Elizabeth Taylor, JFK, and Ronald Reagan. As an American living in England, I agree his stories have a de-nationalized feel; they seem to exist in a suburb that stretches the length of the (post-)industrial world. The titular Concrete Island in his ‘Robinson Crusoe in the middle of traffic’ story could be almost anywhere and the story would still make sense.
Yet High Rise – if not essentially an English story – is one that would have had to be localized elsewhere, in terms of not just its class consciousness but its titular housing project. My own read of the novel was that it took the savagery ascribed to London’s tower blocks and turned it on the upper classes. In the 80s the housing units began being sold to private buyers, a move which (many argue) strongly contributed to the lack of affordable housing in London today. The socially-minded impulses behind these construction projects were positively re-evaluated in the documentary Utopia London; another documentary, Scenes from the Farm (1988) explored the Broadwater Farm estate in the wake of the 1985 riot there. High-Rise’s big-screen realization, which makes tangible the English accents and London skyline, further define it as within the context of the English capital rather than a generic Ballardian elsewhere.
Ben Wheatley didn’t seem too invested in the question of ‘English-ness’ when the moderator asked him about it at a Q&A I attended. He did, however, talk more extensively about the film’s 1970s period setting – and ending that gestures toward the Thatcherite 1980s – noting our contemporary resurgence of the era’s fears of terrorism and economic stratification. If the adaptation has crystalized the setting in place, it has also de-territorialized it in time. The soundscape strongly contributes to this ethereal sense of timelessness too, with a soundtrack of quasi-contemporary cover songs driven by Clint Mansell of the Kronos Quartet bridging the modern with the 70s.
As a Ballard adaptation, High-Rise is remarkably loyal almost to a fault. As a film, it has enough vividly-realized rage and bleak humor from everyone involved to make it a resonant, disturbing vision. Yet with so much alienation on screen, the result can’t help but feel a bit alienating. Whether that is the point or besides it – and despite how much I love the High-Rise film and Ballard – perhaps I’d be content with the next Ballard adaptation being a bit less Ballardian.