Science Fiction Fantasy Horror Mystery   at

HOME page 
Genre Essays 
Book Reviews 
Movie & TV Reviews 
Contributors Guidelines 
Readers' Letters 
Magazine Issues 

High-Rise (2015)
Director: Ben Wheatley

review by J.C. Hartley

Afterwards, in the Port Street Beer House, in Manchester's northern quarter, Hartley nursed his sixth pint and tried to remember how he first came to read the work of J.G. Ballard. I think the first Ballard I read was a short story, that unusually for him featuring evidence of alien life in the cosmos. The first of Ballard's novels I read was The Drowned World, in one of those acid-yellow Gollancz editions, and I still curse myself for not buying the copy that my local library was selling in one of its periodic clear-outs. I didn't buy it because I'd read it, which has to have been a dumb decision, and one to compare with not buying the copy of De Chirico's Hebdomeros that Carlisle library was selling off in the 1980s, because I was too poor to justify the expense. Too poor to buy a discount book in a library sale; there's an unbelievable notion to lay before the echelons of privilege.

I think I read High-Rise next, then Concrete Island, by which time I was pretty much hooked, and worked my way through the rest. What intrigued me was that Ballard was happy to describe his work as science fiction, when much of it was very far from the received opinion of what science fiction should be. I was trying to write as well, and I didn't know how to describe what I was producing; aliens were conspicuously absent in my own version of science fiction, although I was quite happy to include them in some of the poetry I wrote. I was a huge fan of Angela Carter and I thought that maybe what I was trying to do was in the vicinity of the 'magic realism' tag that critics used to describe her work.

In the small press, where some of my work appeared, we used a variety of terms: 'speculative' fiction was favourite, but you would encounter 'weird' and 'fantastic', and one editor came up with 'slipstream' although I doubt the term survived beyond the life of his own particular journal. After reading Ballard I just described myself as a science fiction writer, albeit one who didn't believe in the existence of alien life, and one who ended up writing poetry anyway.

Did I have a favourite Ballard book? I think it was always the one I had just read. I would like to say it was The Unlimited Dream Company but I've always felt that one stands athwart of his other books, in the same way that Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines Of Doctor Hoffman seems to stand at a tangent to hers. I found Crash quite disturbing, and I still think of it as pornographic, although that isn't to condemn it.

A couple of points following on from things I've seen online about Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump's version of High-Rise. IMDB were upset that some of the cars in the film had modern number plates - which was a shame as they had taken such care to source period vehicles - that's my paraphrase. Well, first of all it's a film, not a 1970s documentary, so why bother to read number plates anyway, and just to be perverse I don't buy into the film being set in the 1970s in the first place. For me the action takes place in some retro-fashioned time-capsule, a self-contained parallel domain, consequently Thatcher's speech at the end jarred a little, but that was just me, and it didn't bug me as much as those number plates bugged IMDB.

The second thing I noted was a review in Variety, that was a bit dismissive, suggesting that the class system in the tower block didn't make sense, the site of the tower block didn't refer to London as a whole, tower blocks didn't represent luxury living anyway, and why did Wheatley set the action in the same handful of sets when he obviously had a bigger budget to spend than on previous pictures. The reviewer also seemed put out that Wheatley and Jump's narrative didn't abide by some notion of cinematic convention that was obviously very important to the reviewer concerned; it's carping like this that gives film reviewing a bad name.

Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into his apartment in a new tower block, part of a development designed by celebrity architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Laing has recently lost his sister and there is the suggestion that he has no living family left, and that the bereavement has affected him psychologically. Laing is withdrawn, even when apparently engaging with others; the tower and its remaining inhabitants will eventually come to represent home and family for Laing, but only after a complete breakdown in existing social and personal relationships. The reviewer in Variety complained that Laing is supposed to be an everyman, our route into the narrative, and by making Laing a withdrawn solitary figure the film risks alienating the audience. I'm not convinced this matters; my only concern was that about halfway through the film its political message seemed to be getting laid on rather heavier than it needed to be.

The tower is self-contained with its own supermarket, and leisure facilities, but also with its own social hierarchy with poorer families on the ground floor and those who are more privileged higher up. Royal lives at the very top with his spoiled wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), his dog, and her horse, there is also what appears to be a pedigree goat which I took to be a reference to Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep. Laing meets down-at-heel documentary film maker Wilder (Luke Evans), who is in sexual pursuit of Charlotte (Sienna Miller), despite his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) being heavily pregnant with another child their circumstances can ill afford.

Laing joins in the round of parties that appear to be a constant feature of life in the tower but becomes aware that the infrastructure of the building is flawed, with power-cuts, waste-disposal blockages, and other inconveniences. As the facilities of the tower cease to function, the residents manifest a siege mentality, choosing to remain in the deteriorating edifice, with its fracturing social structure, rather than seeking to escape. The occupants of the upper floors carry out raiding parties on the supermarket to secure supplies, and continue their hedonistic lifestyle while resources run out down below.

At this point in the film there seems to be a definite signal that we are watching allegorical satire, rather than a dystopian thriller, and I shifted in my seat to acknowledge the shift in tone. Laing is more concerned about acquiring the right shade of grey paint to decorate his apartment than getting in a fight over food; meanwhile Wilder is trying to make a new documentary about modern life in the high-rise, and getting beaten-up for his pains.

Although it's a long time since I read the book this seemed to be a very faithful adaptation. There's a certain delightful recognition and anticipation in the opening, when we first meet Laing in his high-rise eyrie cooking Royal's dog, before the 'three months earlier' caption goes up. I remember a reviewer of the film Empire Of The Sun writing about the realisation that he would be seeing a drained swimming-pool and the sense of disappointment when he did.

My only gripe with High-Rise is that the character of Wilder isn't quite the charismatic focal point that he is in the book, the kind of character that frequently appears in Ballard's novels. Wilder becomes obsessed that Charlotte's clever, gifted son Toby, is the result of an affair with Royal, it is never clear why this is so important to him. After he brutally beats and rapes Charlotte, off-screen, Wilder manages to make his way to the top floor via a service shaft, where he shoots Royal, before being almost ritually stabbed by the other women who are in the process of restoring some services to the building.

There is the suggestion that Laing occupies some form of privileged position of his own by the end of the film, as the consort of the women; Charlotte and Helen after enjoying sex with Laing have already acknowledged that he is the best amenity the building has to offer. Laing is waiting for the social structure of the other apartment blocks in the complex to follow the same descent into chaos, and then their renewal as a new kind of society, that he has witnessed in his own building. On a couple of occasions in the film we hear the authentic voice of Ballard's prose, once from Wilder, and once when Laing, standing almost to attention, describes to Royal how he sees the building as a vast nervous system.

Curiously enough, reading Ballard's collection Myths Of The Near Future, recently, I found his prose mannered, and consequently difficult, where once I had responded to its intricacies. There seems to be a reference to the title story in that collection, when Royal's associates on the top floor, led by Pangbourne (James Purefoy), fashion wings out of some of Royal's architectural plans and threaten to launch Laing off the top of the building. Will the critical success of High-Rise encourage further adaptations of Ballard's work as we witnessed with PKD a few years ago? Somehow I suspect not.

A note on where I saw the film. Home is a mixed arts venue replacing the old Cornerhouse in Manchester. Clever scheduling saw a Ballard-inspired series of events under the title 'Always (Crashing)'. This included the film High-Rise, Chris Marker's La Jetee and Sans Soleil, George Miller's Mad Max II: The Road Warrior, Spielberg's Empire Of The Sun, Jonathan Weiss' adaptation of Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, Godard's Alphaville, and film shorts: Chris Petit's Moving Pictures: J.G. Ballard, Harley Cokeliss' Crash!, and Jason Wood's Always (Crashing).

Pretty much simultaneously with this film season was a contemporary art exhibition 'Incidents of Travel in the Multiverse' by Al Holmes and Al Taylor, AL and AL, largely inspired by the life and work of Alan Turing, but also concerned with artificial intelligence, robotics, black holes and time travel. Combining films, drawings, installations, and live musical performance in collaboration with Philip Glass, the exhibition also featured a film season to complement the event; Alphaville, La Jetee, and Sans Soleil, overlapped with the Ballard season, and also featured was Tarkovsky's Stalker.

High-Rise artwork

High-Rise poster

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press