That’s why Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer is better than Ben Wheatley’s new movie High-Rise. Well, one reason, anyway. One very simple reason.
The stories are virtually identical in their broadest strokes. A vaguely defined dystopian future in which social strata are formally segregated within a single Noah’s ark. A mysterious designer/despot rules the world until the lower classes revolt. There is nothing very new in that bare bones concept. Metropolis employed it early in film’s history and it has been a favourite ever since.
Bong’s train provided a dramatically engrossing backdrop for the story. Strip the wheels off that train and stand it on its end, and you have the towering luxury apartment building originally found in J. G. Ballard’s novel published in 1975. The building also provides an intriguing backdrop, but it doesn’t move.
Wheatley does not bother to invest his adaptation of Ballard with much in the way of context. We learn little about the characters in the story or about the outside world that surrounds them. At one point late in the proceedings, a couple of policemen look in on the ravaged lobby of the high-rise and express some mild concern about what is happening inside. But they are rather quickly turned away by the building’s lord and master – the architect. This is designed to make the point that the rich and powerful can talk their way out of anything. But it would be more potent if we had a sense of what that outside world was like. Knowing where those throw-away cop characters are coming from matters at that moment.
Since the characters have virtually no depth, it is hard to praise the talented cast. Certainly Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller and the rest turn in professional performances. But they don’t resonate very much. The one performance that does resonate – indeed, the one likeable character in the story – comes from Luke Evans as the rambunctious documentarian Wilder. Wilder is a crude, abrasive and violent philanderer. He’s the good guy.
What High-Rise does have going for it is a magnificent production design by Mark Tildesley and first-rate cinematography from Laurie Rose. Clint Mansell’s score is quite effective as well. The production details are excellent.
But the story is somewhat of a mess. The decision to use a frame – to begin at the end – doesn’t work very well because it sets the surrealism meter to ten right from the beginning. It leaves very little room for growth. High-Rise has a great many scenes of violence and debauchery, but it does not modulate them in any way. Eventually, despite the action, it actually gets a bit redundant and dull. There are certainly several engaging sequences, but they invariably add up to less than the sum of their parts.
In addition to the obvious Snowpiercer comparison, I was reminded of another movie while watching High-Rise, and this leads to another simple rule. The same year that Ballard published his novel, a young Canadian filmmaker released his first significant feature film. It, too, was set in an ultra-modern high-rise apartment building. And it too featured regular people who would run amok in orgies of sex and violence. In David Cronenberg’s Shivers, the culprit was a mysterious virus that literally got into your skin. But the effect – and the message – were the same. The soullessness of modernity causes a reversion to animalistic behaviour. Cronenberg’s movie was cheap. It looked cheap. Its acting, with the exception of Joe Silver’s supporting role, was sub-standard. And yet, it is a better movie than High-Rise.
Here’s the rule that Cronenberg has always understood. Surreal subject matter does not benefit from surreal treatment. It works best if it is grounded in reality. You build it as carefully as you would build a neorealist drama, setting up a real-world into which the surreal can crash. Of course, there are exceptions, as I mentioned at the beginning. But in the case of High-Rise, it might have been better to rein in some of the extravagance, which in turn might have resulted in a better pay-off.
And maybe turn the building on its side and stick some wheels on it.