They say J.G. Ballard’s 1975 abstract, dystopian novel ‘High Rise’ is unfilmable. They’re right.
Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Laing, a quiet professional who moves into the intimidating concrete ziggurat of the title to find ‘a bit of anonymity’. The building’s architect, Royal (Jeremy Irons) lives in the tip top floor penthouse, ruminating on his ‘crucible for change’, and we also meet Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a bitter documentary producer who lives in a small flat on one of the lower floors.
Sienna Miller’s in it too, but despite what the trailers and posters would have you believe, she is merely a supporting character in the awful, incoherent mess of a ‘film’ that unfolds over the following 119 minutes of misery.
What is the point of this movie? It feels like an art installation, enticing you in with actual scene settings and intelligible dialogue/characters, then pressing the surreal button in an instant to deliver violence, sex, swearing, drugs, and all manner of 1970s trash. The thing is, normally art installations manage to communicate some kind of message as well.
For some reason, the ‘middle class’, respectable tenants of the High Rise suddenly act as though they’re in Lord of the Flies about half way through, acting out all of their aggression, pride and desire no matter what the consequences. “It’s a metaphor” – perhaps, but why? And what for?
There are many problems. Inaccessible dialogue; overused shaky close-up camera; poor pacing & structure, and possibly the most irritating: if you’re going to have a go at this kind of dystopian, surrealist story, what’s the point in changing things from the source?
Laing is presented as a sort of victim; a good-hearted man who gets caught up in all this craziness. Casting Tom Hiddleston supports this – he tends to be someone we want to sympathise with; even his Loki in the Thor/Avengers movies manages to seem like he has mixed motives. But Ballard’s Laing is not in any way sympathetic. In fact, his own evil desires could be considered the most devious, as he alone manages to quietly succeed where others fail, forging his own ‘ideal society’ out of the High Rise’s internal rubble. In the novel, you could even suspect he was really the behind-the-scenes orchestrator of the chaos – in the movie, you’re just left battered and bemused by a complete mess of actions and intentions on all sides.
I didn’t enjoy a single minute. Several others in the cinema with me seemed desperate to find something to enjoy, laughing at every half joke they could, presumably to stave off the aura of depression and decay radiating from the screen.
I have no idea what Director Ben Wheatley wanted to achieve. Neither, apparently, does he if you read some of his media interviews – perhaps he’s got talent, but this film is hardly a showcase for it.