Unless you’re Steven Spielberg making Empire of the Sun, you’ll probably have issues translating J.G. Ballard to the screen. The only other notably mainstream (and I use that term very lightly here) attempt, was David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Crash. It started to feel that maybe Ballard’s fictional prose was meant to stay just as that, words on a page.
When I first heard Ben Wheatley was tackling Ballard’s High-Rise complete with a budding cast of stars, my mouth started watering, and I haven’t even read the book. Yet, there was one inevitable suspicion about the finished product. Much like Ballard’s books, much like Cronenberg’s Crash, Wheatley’s High-Rise is destined to be a polarizing film, and that is exactly what it is; a gorgeous, brutal, lush work of art that some people are simply going to find a way to hate.
It’s the mid ’70s and Dr. Robert Lang (A fascinatingly placid Tom Hiddleston) is moving into the 25th floor of a new high-rise complex built by the mysteriously creative Anthony Royal (the ever fascinating Jeremy Irons). Life seems good at first. The neighbors seem friendly and inviting, the amenities are flush, complete with a full sized supermarket occupying an entire floor within the building. What could be better?
However, the numbers denoting the floors act more like a distasteful brand signifying your social status in the grand pecking order of the high-rise. The blue-collar workers all fill in the lower numbered floors, while the decadent lifestyle of Marie Antoinette mirrors the facilities of Royal and his wife on the top floor. As sections of the building begin to show signs of imperfection, Lang finds himself in the middle of a full on class war that dives far into the most extreme ends of man’s imagination.
Now, I say High-Rise will have only its lovers and haters, likely with no in-between. Yet, there is one simple fact that the haters will all attest to: the visual layer of High-Rise is simply ravishing. Though it breathes off the pastel misgivings of the 1970s, the world Wheatley creates pops off the screen, grabs you by the neck and pulls you right into the movie. I can’t think of another film in recent memory that has drawn me in this way. The Revenant was a breathtakingly beautiful film, but it was just a large slab of grey and white. Each little section of the frame in High-Rise felt like it was a living, breathing work of art, and that includes its own little home for greys and whites. The budget for High-Rise is probably the largest Wheatley has had to work with at this point, and while that’s nothing compared to what’s spent on summer blockbusters, it still looks better than every other film out there.
I first caught wind of Ben Wheatley when Kill List was released. I was taken aback by what he was able to accomplish with his storytelling, even if there were no tight ends around all the pieces. Wheatley and his writing partner Amy Jump have a unique talent when it comes to engrossing their viewers in a world that can’t be all too familiar to anyone. High-Rise is no different.
High-Rise doesn’t take long to get the point, and it doesn’t need a lot of backstory to really understand the world these characters live in, but you’re still engrossed waiting to see how far the depravity of the high-rise inhabits will plummet. Audiences may wonder why they have to wait so long to get to a point they were shown glimpses of at the very start of the movie. But the film itself becomes a metaphor about how long we can actually sit and wait for anything to change or make sense, and not necessarily just the mirror image of the burgeoning class wars we have been and always will be subject to.
I hate comparing films to each other, but it’s sometimes unavoidable. I want to try and treat every movie as its own entity. There were times early on during High-Rise that the thought came to me, but it wasn’t until the tail end of a fairly raucous, but strangely opulent top floor orgy that it became obvious: High-Rise is this era’s A Clockwork Orange. Parts of that are no doubt caused by a certain barrage of images set to the tones of perfectly chosen classical music, but after the whole thing is done, you can feel the outrage and disgust of a certain sect of classical thinkers being turned into a generation’s cult classic.
Beyond Hiddleton and Irons, Luke Evans, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, the entire cast, everyone is wonderful and perfectly inhabits a human being caught in the most inconceivable circumstances, but High-Rise is a success primarily thanks to the man behind the wheel. Ben Wheatley has crafted a story that takes a building, and makes it a living, breathing participant in a feature length film that will dare you not to turn away. High-Rise is a modern day masterpiece, and we are simply looking up at it. For me, there is no escaping its brilliance.