Thursday, September 29, 2016

Elevator to Nowhere: Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise

Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise.

It seems to me that the cute SF conceit of a social experiment gone wrong, the “ship in a bottle utopia,” is so overdone – in literature, in film, in gaming – that there simply can’t be anything more to be said with the concept. It was surely a novel idea in 1975, when J.G. Ballard’s book High-Rise took the dystopian threads of Orwell and Huxley and wove a modern genesis for those scenarios, a ground zero for the horrific futures to come. But by the time filmmaker Ben Wheatley was able to scrape together a film adaptation of the novel in 2016, the concept had become so passé as to feel empty and trite. Wheatley’s film is beautifully hypnotic and strange, but can’t escape a feeling of hollow meaninglessness – which is a shame, considering how otherwise adept the movie is.

High-Rise stars an impeccably cast Tom Hiddleston as Dr. Robert Laing, who is among the first to move into a futuristic apartment complex (well, futuristic for the late 1970s setting, anyway) that provides all sorts of luxury amenities and services like an in-house supermarket, swimming pools, gyms, a bank, a hair salon, and more. These cutting-edge features attract hundreds of affluent tenants who slowly become disinterested in the outside world thanks to their building meeting every possible need they could imagine. Of course, all it takes are some intermittent power outages and a rapidly-evolving social hierarchy that equates elevation with status – the higher up your apartment is, the more important you are – to shake the foundation of this happy little enclosed society, until it all tumbles down around them, literally and figuratively. If it sounds like you’ve heard this sort of story before, that’s because no matter what you’re interested in, you surely have – which is in large part the issue with High-Rise. It has almost nothing new or interesting to say. There’s precious little to chew on here.

Speaking of which, both the novel and the film famously open with the following sentence:
“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
Elisabeth Moss and Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise.
…which is perfectly representative of Ballard at his best: evocative, creepy, and utterly bone-dry. Wheatley’s film, although it opens the same way (using Hiddleston’s narration), doesn’t capture this all-important tone, adopting instead a dreamy retro-nostalgic haze that is sometimes effective, but nowhere near as meaningful as Ballard’s approach. As the building’s residents – including the jocular, unstable documentary filmmaker Wilder (Luke Evans), his neglected pregnant wife Helen (Elizabeth Moss), single mother Charlotte (Sienna Miller), uppercrust fatcat Pangbourne (James Purefoy), and even the building’s architect Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives in an equestrian garden on the building’s roof – descend into madness and self-interested violence, Wheatley uses repetitive editing (demonstrating the banality of Laing’s routine) and a synth-heavy score by Clint Mansell (including an incredible Portishead cover of ABBA’s “SOS”) to create a leaden feeling of helpless insanity. This, like I said, can be effective: the contrast between the high-society Edwardian costume balls of the upper floors and the acid-laced swinger’s raves of the younger set below are hypnotic and disconcerting. An interesting dynamic is established in terms of the building’s (and by extension the film’s) sexual politics, too: the men are, to a man, arrogant, swaggering, self-righteous oafs; the women, by contrast, are possibly the only vehicle Wheatley uses to communicate anything of lasting interest, which is their sanity, agency, and nobility in the midst of this testosterone-fueled nightmare (Moss in particular playing the part of a casualty of this societal downfall who takes her destiny into her own hands). But without any other thematic, ethical, moral, or philosophical underpinning – and the sharp, focused tone required to deliver those things – this hazy effect really just serves to anesthetize the audience for the duration of the story, so that you come out of the film groggy and unsure of what you’ve just seen (or, if anything, what it all meant).

Visually, High-Rise is sumptuous. I think it’s a remarkable feat to be able to make 1970s retrofuturism look anything other than horrifically ugly, but cinematographer Laurie Rose makes the facile connection between the outward ugliness of the building and the inward ugliness of its inhabitants seem like a natural one. The degradation of the building makes for a neat visual evolution as the film goes on (although it’s all spoiled by that famous opening, making the entire experience feel like a lead-up to a twist you already know). There’s a lot of style here, and the cast inhabit and upend this topsy-turvy world with guts and grit – I just wish there was more of a point being made, other than “hey maybe people shouldn’t behave like animals.” I won’t get into the logistical problems with the film, like the way it doesn’t present the outside world as irrelevant and foreign, the way the novel does, which immediately raises the question of why nobody would contact the authorities or leave the building or seek help. Those quibbles are nonsensical when we’re talking about a story that exists in a world where there literally are no rules.

As a whole, High-Rise feels as empty as its protagonist. Hiddleston gamely brings a humanity to Laing that I don’t think exists on the page, but the character exists purely to witness the events of the film, and to allow us to witness them through him, which makes him ultimately meaningless – and since the events of the film don’t communicate much of substance, then it’s meaningless as a whole by extension, too. It’s a trip, to be sure, but not one that goes anywhere. Given a script (and a director) whose sense of tone and thematic purpose were well-honed, High-Rise could have felt like a statement. As it is, it feels more like a question without even a hint of an answer.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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