Ben Wheatley, “High-Rise” (2015)
British author J G Ballard’s novels and short stories are famous for their perceptive originality on the condition of 20th-century humankind and its relationship with modern civilisation, aspects of which are a veneer for vicious social control and repression of the imagination and therefore of the human potential for transformative change. Unfortunately Ballard’s writing does not translate to the screen all that well: his heroes, being everyday empty vessel men falling into synchrony with their techno-environments, are passive and bland, and lack individuality and motivation. Characters are vehicles through which Ballard explores and criticises modern life and trends in technology and culture. Plots are not too well defined and readers can predict in advance that their protagonists will follow in the wake of whatever is the narrative’s focus to its very extreme.
The film “High-Rise” follows its Ballardian premise fairly closely – it’s even set in 1975, about the same time the novel was published – and as a result the narrative is a string of related sub-plots in which characters adapt to life within a residential tower supposedly designed to meet all their needs and fantasies. Protagonist Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into his unit seeking anonymity but discovers his neighbours are so interested in him (for various reasons) that he can’t help but be pulled into their incessant partying that travels from one apartment to the next. Through single mum Charlotte (Sienna Miller), Laing gains access to the building’s architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) who lives at the penthouse level and takes him into his confidence. At the same time Laing becomes friendly with Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) who lives on one of the lower levels with his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their children.
The viewer becomes aware of the social hierarchy that develops with the highest levels of the building being inhabited by elite residents and working class people living at the lowest levels. Wilder becomes obsessed with making a documentary about the building and its residents after an accident in which a man, Munrow, falls to his death from the tower goes uninvestigated by police. Wilder believes that Royal is responsible for the social injustices that arise within the building and prepares to confront him.
While Laing is being initiated into elite society – at the end of which initiation, we do not know what will happen to him because his initiation never gets that far – and Wilder pursues his obsession, the building’s infrastructure starts to fail and exposes the social tensions among the various floors. Violence breaks out, people roam from one party to the next, vandalism and destruction become commonplace and garbage goes uncollected. People no longer leave the building to go to work and gradually cut off their connections from the outside world. Feeling guilty over Munrow’s suicide death, Laing loses his grip on reality.
The film would have worked better had it been set in the present and the building’s degradation attributed to the use of substandard materials and labour to reduce its costs to please its architect and shareholders. In this way, the building becomes a metaphor for neoliberal economics and its failure to deliver a decent standard of living to those unfortunate enough to live in societies where the neoliberal capitalist ideology holds sway. The failing services in the building also become a metaphor for the erosion of the social welfare net. The tensions and violence that develop among the residents become understandable and anticipated. Had the film relied less on its source material and the director brought in a social anthropologist to help write the script, the plot would have become more hilarious and interesting as gang warfare develops among different floors, people steal food or trade children or sex for it, and tribes with their own rituals (including ritual sacrifice) and religions develop. Royal could revel in his role as a George Soros figure, using opposed groups against one another in a divide-and-rule strategy to maintain his elite status and power. Laing would find his niche as Royal’s eyes and ears, wandering through the building and reporting back on the intrigues and power shifts on the different floors, and eventually become his successor.
As it is, “High-Rise” is a monotonous plod through various soap operas within a massive brutalist (if very comfortably and stylishly furnished) prison asylum with an open-ended conclusion. The film aims to criticise British culture and society, and to do that as cutting satire, but fails dismally in this respect. Good actors are wasted and the sometimes beautiful and imaginative cinematography seems awkward and out of place in a supposed dystopian comedy.
This is one example of a film that should not have followed its source material too faithfully; it should have been a development from the novel and a companion piece that comments on its themes and ideas..