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New Release Review - HIGH-RISE

Relations become increasingly strained among the residents of an exclusive tower block.

Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elizabeth Moss



In what era should a movie version of Ballard's novel be set? Is it still relevant? Ben Wheatley has answered the former question by resolutely setting his adaptation in 1975, but his film leaves the latter question unanswered.



For those of us of a pre-millenial generation, there's something surreal about living in the year 2016, having grown up with science fiction movies and TV shows whose timelines we've now long passed. Escape From New York takes place 19 years ago; the 'future' of Back to the Future 2 is now consigned to the past; and a Blade Runner sequel will arrive roughly a year from the events of the first film.
JG Ballard's 1975 novel was, at time of publishing, set in a near future, which has of course since become a distant past. It's for this reason that a screen adaptation has been flirted with but ultimately passed over by several filmmakers over the last 40 years. In what era should a movie version be set? Is it still relevant? Ben Wheatley has answered the former question by resolutely setting his adaptation in 1975, but his film leaves the latter question unanswered.
Wheatley embraces the 1975 setting to a fetishistic degree. The men resemble the guests of Fawlty Towers, all sideburns and bloodshot eyes, while the women seem to have been based on the heroines of '70s Italian giallo thrillers, their exaggerated beauty lending a grotesque quality. The soundtrack blends hits of the day with modern, electronic covers of such.
Into this milieu walks Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a charming but withdrawn doctor who takes an apartment on one of the middle floors of the titular upscale housing project. Initially he makes acquaintances among the residents of surrounding floors, who roughly fall into his own middle class bracket. Then he is summoned like a fresh prison inmate to meet the building's architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), a millionaire who resides on the building's top floor, above similarly affluent residents on the higher floors. Laing finds himself caught in the middle of a burgeoning class war as tensions rise like an express elevator throughout the building.
Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump do a fine job of establishing and introducing us to this world in the opening act, but once the narrative concrete has set, they promptly demolish their film in tandem with their protagonists' destruction of the building. There's little to no escalation of tension among the residents, and the inciting incident that prompts the violent class civil war inside the building's walls - middle class kids denied use of a swimming pool by partying toffs - is bizarrely never shown, merely referred to in a line of dialogue. As such, when all hell breaks loose it seems to come out of nowhere.
For most of the film's second half, Wheatley layers on montage after montage of wanton destruction, like an 'edgy' director filming an Ikea commercial in which people splash paint around a lot, rarely settling down to explore any of this in depth. But maybe that's the point, and there simply is no depth to this story at this point. Ballard's novel was contemporaneously followed by movies like Cronenberg's Shivers and Romero's Dawn of the Dead, which hold up today as vastly superior explorations of consumerist dehumanisation than Wheatley's film, which ultimately is just another slice of soulless cinematic nostalgia.
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