Director Ben Wheatley Starring Tom Hiddleston, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans UK Release Date 18th March 2016
What did J. G. Ballard teach us? He looked at the buildings high-rising around him in 1975 and saw in them the epitome of a chaotic, hedonistic society doomed to eat itself from within. It was all just there, for him, in the evolving fact of itself, waiting to be manipulated into book form. He fashioned a dystopian construction overbrimming with the political worries of his time, and in doing so rewrote the boundaries of dystopian science fiction itself.
40 years later, and his British classic HIGH-RISE has finally made its way onto our screens. By the admission of the director, the discarded scripts stack a meter high from the ground, but writer (and co-editor) Amy Jump used none of them to fashion her version. Producer Jeremy Thomas has finally achieved his 30 year long dream of adapting the book. And through the repetitive motifs of swirling cigarette smoke stroking Tom Hiddleston’s face and the 70s styled-to-perfection tanned form of Sienna Miller (physically made for the era), the same question keeps coming at me: to what end?
HIGH RISE – the film – is about the cyclical nature of politics and history. It is a ferris wheel of shit stuck on fast forward, doomed to corrupt the next high rise building and all of its inhabitants, who will slowly but surely be sucked into the consumerist, capitalist machine. But whilst the book it’s based on preempted Thatcherite Britain, Wheatley’s film is retrospective: a 2016 film set in an imagined future from the 70s. Reconciling this temporal yo-yoing proves problematic. It is a TV screen flicking through reproductions of human activity at a queasy pace, devoid of respectful humanism and unapologetically so. Is that the point – to show that same dehumanization the economic turn of the 70s brought us and Ballard pointed to? 40 years on, surely there’s more to say on the subject than just ‘nothing has changed’.
Hiddleston was the director’s first choice for the role of Dr. Robert Laing, new resident in a luxury tower block designed by architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) that is stacked in hierarchal order, top-down. He becomes immersed in the social make up of the isolated community as it descends into savagery, much of which is catalysed by second floor resident Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) who is documenting the perverse social structure of the building in an attempt to reveal its inherent evil. Hiddleston and the rest of the high profile cast brought financial backing and media attention, and a security that the project had clearly lacked in the past, which, according to the director, is the point of getting stars involved with your film. As a cast they certainly come across as a patchwork quilt of personalities that fits the disposable notion of the individual that the story proclaims, although its hard to emotionally attach yourself to any of them because of it.
HIGH-RISE begins at the end and then shows us the journey of descent. Consequently, the break down feels more inevitable than a famous book adaptation already does. But the graphic match of the little bespectacled boy Toby (son of Miller’s character, Charlotte Melville) playing with his kaleidoscope at the beginning of the film (which he claims to show him ‘the future’) with the chaotic montages that unfold in act 3 are stunning and poignant. Wheatley’s filmic skills are clear (he edited the film himself with the writer – practically unheard of in high budget filmmaking) and, like with his past films, the double meaning of songs feature prominently as part of creating meaning.
For all its style, HIGH-RISE does little more than point at that same post modern machine we’ve seen depicted on screen since Charlie Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES, Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS and Ridley Scott’s BLADERUNNER. By detaching the immortal story from any tangible human emotion, the filmmaking feels as devoid of meaning as the subject. And if even art has no meaning, the trappings of our market driven society really have won.