Review: High-Rise

Ballardian nightmare can't hit the heights


The adjective most often used to describe JG Ballard's literary genius is "dystopian". Many of his novels are frightening portraits of how a group of people attempt to create a better world and, instead, end up on a self-destructive orgiastic path to a man-made hell. They're also darkly funny.

But there's another, equally accurate word for his stories of crazed messiahs, concrete utopias and corruptible innocence. Absurd. They elegantly teeter on the edge of absurdity - they're not real and yet, somehow, if things were slightly tweaked, one comes to think that they might indeed happen.

And so Ben Wheatley, possibly Britain's most inventive and daring director, has decided to create his own absurdist dystopian fantasy based on Ballard's seminal early work, High-Rise, which he also sets in the 1970s. Quite how he managed to turn a gripping novel into such a messy, clumsy and boring film is, thus, surprising. Perhaps in his lust for dystopia he has teetered too far over the edge of absurdity.

The star of the film is the eponymous block of flats where the affluent, well-bred and more "skilled" live higher up. They have special access to the pool and gym, conduct the best sex parties, get prime parking spaces and drink endless cocktails. They think they rule the grey, drab monstrosity (indeed, Wheatley provides the building with menacing eyes) which has been designed by the mysterious and reclusive Royal, a brilliantly sinister Jeremy Irons who lives in a penthouse-garden idyll.

He has tried to create an artificial utopia that no one need ever leave. This is a high-rise block of flats that inspires a new, self-sufficient society that requires no law to guide it. Only desire. He succeeds, though ignores one crucial Ballardian rule - society is fragile, especially when its lusts are satiated.

Lights start to fail, intercoms fall out of their sockets, rubbish clogs the chutes, lifts break down and supplies run low. Within a few weeks riots break out, dogs are being barbecued and the sex starts to get as ugly and brutal as the architecture.

Our focus amid all the anarchy is not, sadly, Irons but dreary brain surgeon Tom Hiddleston (Laing, without the "RD" associations but only in name) who moves in, searching for some anonymous, concrete-clad solace after the death of his sister. However, one glance at scantily-clad neighbour Sienna Miller and he swiftly gets sucked into the Bacchanalian lifestyle.

His sense of morality crumbles as he grows closer to a predatory documentary maker (a wild Luke Evans) who, he comes to believe, sees the new concrete order for what it is: class war.

For the nihilists still standing (or lying semi-comatose) by the end, this sudden slide into depravity provides a bizarre sense of fulfilment. They're ready for the inevitable anarchy which will consume the next-door tower block, in some sort of domino effect, backed by a soundtrack of Margaret Thatcher's shrill tones and a haunting version of Abba's SOS.

It's all gloriously over-the-top stuff but it lacks the subtle menace of the superior material on which it's based. Wheatley's vision is less focused on the building itself and more on the endless bit-parts. It is the man-made building, after all, which personifies vanity, envy and greed. It is not simply the characters that inflict psychological damage on each other but the monstrous edifice.

Science fiction cinema needs more nightmarish Ballardian dystopias. Wheatley's High-Rise is certainly inventive and occasionally shocking but it's a nightmare that is more likely to make you yawn than think.

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