J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise follows the residents of a futuristic luxury skyscraper as they devolve from regularly isolated citizens of a first-world economy into tribespeople at brutal warfare with one another. With acute precision, Ballard captures the petty rivalries that drive capitalism and pivot on the lower and middle class’s jealousy of the ruling upper echelon. In High-Rise and other novels, Ballard proved himself to be a master of dramatizing escalation, conveying the breakdown of society in convincing micro-detail.
The novel’s core subject is the corporate anonymity embodied by the high-rise. The building’s niceties, particularly its studiously inoffensive décor, are so removed from human rapport they casually warp people’s understanding of themselves as part of a larger communal organism with responsibility to others. Credit cards, private restaurants, gyms, penthouses, even more humbly interchangeable dwellings, encourage a tunnel vision that muddies an awareness of strangers’ humanity. And this is the first step in empowering people to commit atrocities, which they might yearn to do, or even to suffer, as a subconscious need for escape from disconnection.
Ballard’s satirical horror novel was first published in Britain in 1975, the year Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party, and it’s impressive and terrifying for being prescient of not only Thatcherism and the social unrest it would unleash, but of 21st-century corporate interests and the instruments they co-opt, particularly the Internet, to narcotize and alienate the populace. Ballard’s tight, clinical, unexpectedly humorous prose implicates readers, tethering them to the behavioral reality of his premise, the sobriety of his writing serving as a counterpoint to the chaos of the subject matter—a contrast that David Cronenberg evoked brilliantly in his film adaptation of Ballard’s Crash.
This sobriety, alas, is entirely missing from Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, leaching Ballard’s themes of their profundity. The British filmmaker uses the novel as a springboard for yet another garishly obvious class-warfare film, proving unsurprisingly incompatible with the author as a stylist. The former’s art is bombastic, often with a streak of rowdy, unruly wit, while the latter’s is quiet and insinuating. The filmmaker thrives on overt aggression, missing the sense of implication and escalation that are key to Ballard’s work.
Where Ballard describes, say, the closing of an elevator to suggest a cordoning off of class intersections, with an altercation off-handedly sketched in a few words, Wheatley shows rich thugs beating up lower-class men, shouting obscenities as the camera pushes in on the violence. Everyone in Wheatley’s High-Rise is crazy nearly from the opening frame: callous, over-sexed, coked-up, homicidal. And so, there’s nowhere for the story to go, as there’s little shock to be mined from this society’s blossoming degradation.
The film’s notion of a caste system is crudely reductive in the manner of a routine future-shock thriller.
Wheatley thwarts the audience’s complicity with the characters. The high-rise itself, rather than resembling the sort of generically comfortable hotel that a corporation might put one up in for a job interview, is a feast of expressionist, only-in-the-movies images. The interior of the elevators, for instance, are imbedded with mirrors, so that characters are reflected endlessly over themselves, as the protagonist was at the climax of Citizen Kane. It’s a haunting and beautiful effect (appropriated from a different scene in the novel), but it compromises the studious banality that’s supposed to be divorcing these characters from themselves and driving them insane. Correspondingly, the arched hallways, curved rooves, and painterly off-green water of the pools are all cinematographically striking in the wrong way. As a result, the ensuing barbarity feels random, inexplicable, and fantastical, rather than preordained and ordinary. The loss of distinction these people feel is nonsensical because the setting is, well, distinctive.
The film’s notion of a caste system is crudely reductive in the manner of a routine future-shock thriller. The wealthy pace the top floors of the high-rise guzzling booze and fucking each other senseless in their lofts, which have been designed to suggest a kind of sci-fi painting of the French aristocracy (there’s even a French theme party, lest we miss the point), openly discussing how they can play the lower and middle classes against each other for their own gain. A subtlety of Ballard’s novel is lost: that everyone, regardless of their social standing, sees themselves as the most vulnerable and exploited party. The rich here are cackling ciphers and insatiable satyrs, though the poor aren’t any more richly imagined, as they’re raging working-class ids, particularly the walking set of cock and balls that’s tediously played by Luke Evans at a perpetual 11 on the figurative behavioral dial.
Rather than exploring social organization, Wheatley is preoccupied with throwing a cult-movie party inhabited by caricatures. There are memorable images, such as a close-up of molding peaches in a supermarket that succinctly, imaginatively captures the quotidian of social upheaval. But much of the film is composed of orgies and violence, as the characters cascade from one indecipherable rebellion to another, affording Wheatley the opportunity to indulge in all manners of aesthetic overkill: slow-motion, strobe lights, multi-colored screen filters, and so on, which collectively fetishize 1970s-era films. Perhaps afraid of losing the story’s thread among the ostentatious madness, Wheatley crams the frames with protest signifiers, such as a poster of Che Guevara, or a child listening ironically to Thatcher on the radio.
Wheatley’s High-Rise imparts a vision that’s sexy in a familiarly debauched, nihilistic way, rhyming the conformist anonymity of curdled, hung-over mid-1970s flower-child bonhomie with the posher, more “civilized” corruption of The Man. That’s a potentially promising elaboration on the source material, but this correlation, as envisioned, is stultifying and insidiously superficial. The film dulls the viewer’s senses, bludgeoning them with hyperbole, offering a freak show that’s ensconced in us-versus-them ideology that flatters us (for we are the true oppressed, who clearly know better than the cretins on screen), forgiving us of our own conformities and evasions, encouraging the very detachment that Ballard so eloquently diagnosed.