Movie Review : High-Rise (2015)
I've discovered the work of iconic author J.G Ballard over a decade ago, on the suggestion of a college teacher who wanted me to explore the idea of writing a PhD thesis *. I remember liking The Atrocity Exhibition and Kingdom Come a lot, but I wasn't nearly mature enough as a reader to understand what I liked and why I liked it. I haven't followed-up on this great first impression until reading an appreciation of the book by author Blake Butler in Vice. Butler is great at building expectation, yet the book lived up to them in every possible way.
Ben Wheatley's adaptation of Ballard's quintessential piece of literature was doing the film festival circuit by the time I reviewed the book and promising trailers got me riled up for what could become an important cinematographic event in 2016. Did the movie lived up to the world of expectations I had. Not really. I might be unfair, but I thought Ben Wheatley's High-Rise was an aesthetically pleasing and sometimes visually bold film that didn't seem to get what makes J.G Ballard's writing so great.
High-Rise doesn't have a set protagonist, but it alternates between physician Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) and documentarian Richard Wilder (Luke Evans). The social gap between the lower and higher floors of the building manifests itself in different power struggles over the facilities of the tower and Laing often finds himself caught between the two factions as he inhabits the twenty-fifth floor and economically belongs to both camps. When war erupts in the high-rise after a resident's dog is found dead in a pool, Laing has to put much more than just his allegiance in perspective.
Since High-Rise is an adaptation, there is no going around the original material. The J.G Ballard book is the only reason why I wanted to see the movie, right? It's a gorgeous looking movie that looks like a nightmare Ballard himself could've had in the seventies and it's part of the problem. The universal character of High-Rise: the novel makes it such a terrifying read. I've picked it up in 2015 and got sucked in because it painted a savage portrait of some of my deepest fears. The visual paradigm Ben Wheatley's adaptation created sure is Ballardian, but it also feels distant, like it was happening in a different dimension.It has little of the emergenccy of the original work.
I believe the most beautiful and troubling metaphor the High-Rise novel built was the architect-as-God/tower-as-creation dynamic which is unfortunately absent from the movie. This is a story about humans rebelling against a God they want to be equal to and earning damnation in the process. While High-Rise does a very competent job at the pre-downfall of society part of the story, depicting awkward interactions between neighbors and unhealthy desires coursing through the units of the forty stories tower, it becomes quite unsatisfying once shit hits the fans: the scenes are chaotic and muddled and while the violent and desolation is really on point, it's tough to understand what hell is actually going on if you don't know the floors of the high-rise are attacking each other.
I was not crazy about the movie adaptation of High-Rise. My expectations were probably too high, but I thought it sped through the important part of the original material in order to create a unique visual experience and sacrificed a lot of its meaning and power in the process. The actors are not to blame. Tom Hiddleston is the perfect Robert Laing, Luke Evans is even better as Wilder and Jeremy Irons surprised the heck out of me as Anthony Royal, who I thought was meant to be played by Willem Dafoe **. It's not unpleasant. If you decide to watch it without reading the original material at first, you're probably going to like it, but I thought it was a letdown.
* Newsflash, it never happened.
** I know I didn't name any female actresses, but there are no major/fun female characters in the story. If you have any grievances with that, take it with Ballard. Don't email me about it.