Ben Wheatley directs J. G. Ballard’s “High-Rise”: Why movies should move

High-RiseThis is a very simple rule, and, as with most simple rules, we must allow for a great many exceptions. But the rule still has merit. Movies are better when they move.

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.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

10 thoughts on “Ben Wheatley directs J. G. Ballard’s “High-Rise”: Why movies should move

  1. Sounds like High Rise doesn’t rise too high. In the right hands it might have been as claustrophobic as Das Boot. Funnily enough I’ve long thought that the right hands belonged to none other than David Cronenberg. His record on page to screen translations is uneven, true. But High Rise is deceptive in its lucid narration. The calm and detached tone of Ballard’s writing underlines the disintegration of life within the apartment tower. Cronenberg seemed a good match for the material.

  2. Saw it Thursday. And yeah, there were definitely some obvious nods to Cronenberg (I found the most obvious to be the Crash reference, but for some reason I was thinking Ballard… 😀 )

    What really struck me about it–and what made me think about forgiving the almost impressionist presentation of the story–was the atmosphere. It’s a deeply oppressive movie, and I was depressed as hell the entire way home. In the end, I don’t think it was enough for what was, presumably, Wheatley and Jump excising more of the book than they should have (my assumption that Ballard’s novel is more coherent is shaky at best, though; the novels of his I’ve read are not).

    It’s no A Field in England, and it’s certainly no Sightseers. Still teetering on whether to recommend it based on those engaging scenes you mentioned (fresh in my mind because I just saw it a few weeks ago, but really, no mention of what is, to me, the most obvious parallel–The Devils?) and Hiddleston’s pitch-perfect acting, but still in “I could go either way” mode.

  3. Wow. How disappointing. And the cast is KILLER. Probably still going to watch it because I love this cast. But that is what they’re banking on isn’t it, and why they keeps churning out this bollocks.

    Too bad.

    • To me, this is a design movie which doesn’t take enough advantage of its cast. With I Saw the Light and High-Rise, I think Hiddleston is having a down year. But I have no doubt it’s just a minor setback. And since I thought Irons was largely wasted in BVS, I guess it has been a bad year for him too.

      • If you get the chance to see the BBC TV series ‘The Night Manager’, you might re-think Hiddleston having a bad year. It was a superb drama.
        (And it has made him favourite for the new Bond too)
        Regards, Pete.

  4. Well, Jon, you have burst my balloon with this one. A cast full of actors that I love to watch, from a director who has given us some modern British drama at its best. (Kill List) I was anticipating this one with relish.
    I haven’t seen ‘Snowpiercer’, but remember ‘Shivers’ well. When I read about this film, I had actually thought of the film ‘Sliver’ (1993) as a comparison, and hoped that ‘High Rise’ would be superior to that soap opera in a luxury tower block. Your thoughtful review has left me doubting now.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. I am particularly eager to hear what you think of High-Rise. One of my main points here is that it hits the surrealism too early and too hard – a critique which I believe could also be leveled at one of your favorites, Come and See. But Klimov finds a way to keep escalating so that it never feels redundant. I don’t think Wheatley manages that feat here.

      • When I get round to seeing it, I will comment here, Jon.

        As for ‘Come and See’, when detractors remark on the surreal aspects, I always reply that war must be a very surreal experience indeed.
        Best wishes, Pete.

  5. Great review, Jon. I actually rewatched Shivers the other day, and couldn’t help but think of it while reading your review. Interesting to see you made the same connection.

    • Thanks James. Cronenberg has always seemed to me to the opposite of this kind of filmmaking. Especially in his early movies, the total always seems greater than the sum of the parts. I think horror is the genre that can most easily turn a lack of budget into an advantage with a cel ever design and conception. What is left off screen is often more important than what we can see.

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