After four decades of thwarted efforts, producer Jeremy Thomas has finally realized his screen adaptation of the novel High-Rise, J.G. Ballard’s masterpiece fusion of Lord of the Flies and a 1970s urban living catalog. Sadly, it translates Ballard’s coolly sardonic narrative voice into a cinematic tone that’s so detached as to be nearly inert. I’m generally quite taken with movies that can successfully convey human depravity in a casual, even flippant manner, and the husband/wife director/writer pair of Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump have historically been tremendously adept at working with such a sensibility. But High-Rise, a dark sci-fi satire, is only funny, intriguing, or shocking in fits and piques.
An excess of devotion to the source material may be one root of the problem. Like 2009’s Watchmen, High-Rise faithfully recreates a vision of a specific time and place which incorporated fantastical elements in order to make a point about that milieu. In Watchmen’s case, this was an alternate 1985 granted advanced technology by superhumans, while in High-Rise, it’s a luxury 40-story tower block designed as a wholly self-sufficient community. Reiterating the novel’s critique of 70s consumerist culture is somewhat hollow, as it misses out on what an adaptation updated for today could have brought to the table. What is the point, for instance, of persisting in probing the swinging lifestyle? Not only does that hold little contemporary relevance, but it wasn’t even much of a factor in the book. High-Rise seems more in love with demolishing a modern, semi-mythical vision of the 70s than a serious application of Ballard’s actual ideas.
Granted, as with Watchmen, the level of detail is impressive, the design team fashioning a continual march of shag carpeting, awful mustaches and worse polyester shirts to capture the period. The high-rise, a Brutalist behemoth purposefully made to resemble a finger curling toward the sky, is a fully-realized world. Within it are a legion of bougie grotesques — walking chest rugs who live for squash and hoop-earringed stick figures shepherding revolting dogs. At the film’s best, these characters descend into positively Terry Gilliam territory, at first determinedly ignoring that anything is going wrong in their malfunction-ridden fortress, and then succumbing to savagery after the infrastructure fails and class tensions snap.
At the center of the escalating yet languid chaos is Dr. Robert Laing, played with a mite too much disaffection by Tom Hiddleston. In the book, Laing’s droll point of view as an outsider — witnessing the active players in the high-rise’s anarchy — lets him be the reader’s guide. Here, his passiveness makes him more of a distraction than anything else. Why stick with this blank when documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) is making it his mission to purposefully needle the richer residents? Laing could hardly be said to have any story of his own, and he certainly has less of a stake in what’s going on than single mother Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller), Wilder’s frustrated, impossibly overdue pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), or the high-rise’s designer and penthouse resident, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Laing acts as the interpersonal thread connecting these characters, but why bother with that when the omniscient eye of the camera is available, and when the construction of the film itself can substitute for his judgment of the events?
Wheatley shares Ballard’s easy rapport with the macabre. A doctor unrolling the skin off a cadaver’s head is treated as if he’s peeling a lychee. A deranged ex-civilized resident clicks a remote control at a hollowed-out television set holding a decapitated head. The moment of impact between the hood of a car and a man who’s jumped off the high-rise is depicted in agonizing, unblinking slow motion. (Said impact occurs headfirst. There’s … a lot of head violence in this movie.) But even the squeamish may find all this only momentarily risible. High-Rise gazes without flinching at a cavalcade of violence without ever feeling like it’s truly stepped into the muck. We’re so removed from the physicality of the violence that little of it is felt, and so the muck is only set dressing.
Dan Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic and freelance editor. Follow him on Twitter @DanSchindel.