There are few novels considered “unfilmable” that haven’t been translated to the big screen. High-Rise, director Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G Ballard’s cult 1975 sci-fi novel, is the rare movie adaptation that doesn’t feel like it has been adapted, so peculiar and distinctive to the director is the increasing foregoing of narrative in favour of societally depraved surrealism.
Ballard’s novel set up a simple social class allegory that despite being obvious and overwrought, was essential to the narrative. Amy Jump’s screenplay decides to make this subtext so blatant as to not build the narrative around it; it is mere window dressing for the carnival of grotesquerie within.
Prioritising cinematic experimentation over sticking closely to the satire of the book
If there is a problem with High-Rise, it is the fact it doesn’t seem interested in making a politically aware sci-fi movie that would still resonate with modern audiences, despite its period setting (Wheatley claims it is set in an “alternate reality 1975”, whereas Ballard’s novel of the same year was set in an indistinct near future).
The film is disappointing in that it is comprised entirely of oddball set pieces, which are frequently enjoyable, even if the lack of character development doesn’t make the social satire embedded within have the stinging effect it needs.
The film takes place in a luscious tower block, with the poorest living at the bottom and the richest near the top – a premise that begs for simplistic ideological warfare. Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has just moved into the middle of the building on floor 25, solidifying his status as an aspiring social climber who is immediately seduced by the hedonistic lifestyle promised from the floors above.
The novel was likely an inspiration for the recent cinematic adaptation of Dredd, as all mod cons are available in the flats – everything from Kubrickian supermarkets to swimming pools. Heck, there is even a Eden-style garden on the architect’s (Jeremy Irons) top-floor roof, where nature and industrialism sit hand in hand, as disjointed as the social classes who struggle to co-exist below.
Stuck on the middle of the high-rise, Laing is immediately viewed with dual loyalties and suspicions from upper and lower classes. He’s seduced by Charlotte (Sienna Miller), the fun-loving woman from the floor above and the gateway to a higher class. He has a queasy friendship with the building’s architect Anthony Royal, who feels out of place amongst the higher classes yet refuses to leave the insular society he has created for fear of courting anger from the citizens below.
Then he has an even more complex relationship with Wilder (Luke Evans), a documentary filmmaker relegated to the bottom floors for making a film about the abhorrent class structure in place. These character relationships aren’t set up via exposition; Wheatley throws us in to the deep end, often allowing character progression to occur off camera to leave us increasingly disoriented as to where everybody stands at any given time. He is eager to depict a society in ruins, disinterested to the specifics of what causes it to become that way.
Not the class-culture skewering movie we urgently need
At a time when Britain has finally seen the final nail being placed in the coffin of David Cameron’s proposed “big society”, a pipe dream uniting all social classes that has been destroyed once and for all thanks to the detrimental effects of the latest budget on the working classes, the fact Wheatley has no aspirations towards the same political satire of the novel is disheartening.
When he does, it is too overwrought; higher classes complaining about “poor people” and the end credits being soundtracked by a Margaret Thatcher speech about social class are the two most glaring examples. It is frequently reminiscent of Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer, an action movie set on a post-apocalyptic train with the same social class conceit – which also has a Marvel movie star in the lead role.
That film is retroactively more impressive after seeing High-Rise, as its subtle critique of social class culture is even more delightfully subversive considering it has been adapted for the screen by a non-British director. Sadly though, that movie has never seen the light of day in UK cinemas; strange, considering its mainstream qualities and biting satirical sting.
High-Rise, with its surreal tendencies and aversion to the concrete narrative (and sadly still relevant political overtones) of the source novel, frequently comes across like cinematic free-jazz that has been inexplicably pumped into multiplexes across the land.
Wheatley has never been a commercial filmmaker, so it is fitting his biggest budget project to date is also his least compromising – this is a film designed to perplex casual audiences. But despite being a social satire, as much as its experimentation of form wants to suggest otherwise, it is Wheatley’s least funny effort. Like Mike Leigh, he makes films about depressing subject matter that cannot be rendered humourless, hopping genre to genre yet still maintaining a distinctively British deadpan warmth.
A working-class gangster drama (Down Terrace), an Extreme-Asia inspired nihilistic revenge thriller (Kill List), a dark comedy about a serial killer couple on holiday (Sightseers) and a psychedelic art film set during the English Civil War (A Field in England) are about as eclectic as a filmography still in its infancy can get. That his latest movie doesn’t have the comedic detours that characterised even his darkest efforts is disheartening; the comedy presented within High-Rise is too clinical to be funny, with any laughs generated solely due to the sheer oddity of what is presented on screen.
It is telling that in the days after viewing I had no idea whether I felt positively or negatively after the film. I admired its ambition and strange singularity, but equally felt being released in the midst of political controversy across the classes in the UK was somewhat detrimental to the film; after all, we are currently crying out for a skewering of the class system after recent events.
It will likely reward repeat viewings, as Ben Wheatley’s eclectic filmography tends to – but its rushed, unfocused narrative renders this more an admirable failure than a subversive cult classic in waiting.
HighpRise is dividing audiences and critics – what did you think of it?
High-Rise is out now in the UK and on April 28 in the US. All international release dates are here.
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Alistair is a 25 year old writer based in Cambridge. He has been writing about film since the start of 2014, and in addition to Film Inquiry, regularly contributes to Gay Essential and The Digital Fix, with additional bylines in Film Stories, the BFI and Vague Visages. Because of his work for Film Inquiry, he is a recognised member of GALECA, the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics' Association.