How might’ve Cronenberg handled High-Rise? You needn’t look further than 1975’s Shivers (in a bit of cosmic irony, released the same year Ballard’s novel was published), which blended horror and sci-fi against a Twilight Zone-styled allegory about a self-contained bourgeoisie becoming a sex-crazed symbol of societal parasitism. It didn’t need to underline and highlight its narrative and thematic points with blaring spotlights; nor did it create an obnoxious child corollary to convey an obligatory sense of generational baton-passing. On the technical side, Shivers is a rough debut, but its ambition allows Cronenberg’s craft and pulpy intellectualism to create a nightmare rooted in reality. In many ways, it makes perfect sense that the director chose to take on Crash.
Wheatley’s film is faithful to Ballard’s novel only in the sense that a bulk of the words have been given aural and visual life. As my college Shakespeare professor said of the botched renderings of the Bard, “many actors memorize the words without understanding their meaning.”
The genius of the visuals, the incidental details of the period (it’s “the future” of the 1970s, complete with bell-bottoms), and the level of specificity in the production design (by Mark Tildesley) and cinematography (by Laurie Rose) is to be commended. The moments of brilliance in High-Rise are owed entirely to the unsung set decorators and lighting techs making the halls look like as much of a disaster area as possible, or the imposing exterior shots of the apartment block (resembling a circle of sentient beings staring stoically at a desolate landscape).
As the building’s latest addition, Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is Ballard’s model of a morally upright citizen who slowly assimilates to a self-contained environment of subversion and deviance. Hiddleston, who excels as much in low-key roles (Crimson Peak; Only Lovers Left Alive) as towering blockbusters (The Avengers), is merely functional in the role. Charlotte (Sienna Miller) is a lifeless depiction of servant-badgering, thrill-seeking boredom, complete with aforementioned obnoxious son. Meanwhile, Richard Wilder is brought to unsubtle life by Luke Evans, who plays to the rafters; his scenery-chewing performance, aiming for dark humor, becomes the film’s biggest distraction (he’s a TV guy! he’s an opportunistic scumbag! we get it!). Helen (Elisabeth Moss), Wilder’s pregnant wife, becomes the Mary/Eve surrogate to the film’s religious parable, but is never allowed to flourish as anything but a blatant symbol. The introduction of aging architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) portends great and/or horrible things – what with his 40th-floor penthouse a postmodern vision of the Garden of Eden (Wheatley doesn’t incorporate a CGI unicorn, but may as well have). The downfall of this God composite is informed by the same collective paranoia as everybody else, thus rendering Royal just another one-dimensional husk (as in Batman v Superman, Irons’s marginalization is just as criminal here).
Ballard creates cold, sterile worlds that are driven by concepts instead of characters, but he’s strong enough a writer that his narratives thrive with intellectual possibility as a result. Who knows? Perhaps Cronenberg’s detached aesthetic would’ve at least matched, if not transcended, the material. Wheatley, on the other hand, can’t seem to resist any opportunity to lapse into stiffly-executed comedic absurdity, to the point where one wonders whether he kept the ’70s setting because the fashions and attitudes make for cheap throwaway gags when all else fails. The characters behave less like the savages of the novel and more like homicidal refugees from the Ministry of Silly Walks. Film needs characters to thrive, and the fact that Wheatley allows the concepts to steamroll the characters is correct; his caricatured treatment of a corkscrewing dystopian scenario is not. Ballard’s prose has a distinctive flow and specificity that creates sharp images in the mind’s eye, forcing the reader into contemplation of the greater implications contained within.
With High-Rise depicting everything so vividly, it leaves nothing to the imagination, and certainly no characters to relate to. It’s a lulling, meandering ride through bags of garbage, destroyed rooms, leaking pipes, penthouse orgies, and murder that recalls Sodom and Gomorrah, the fall of Rome, or The Wolf of Wall Street. But the anarchic thrills are replaced with tedium, emptiness, and a single pervasive question: “is it over yet?”
Jonny Numb’s IMDb Rating: 4 out of 10
(High-Rise is available on Blu-ray and DVD via Magnet Releasing. It can also be viewed via NetFlix streaming.)