Sunday, May 15, 2016

In Theaters/On VOD: HIGH-RISE (2016)

(UK/Ireland/Belgium - 2016)

Directed by Ben Wheatley. Written by Amy Jump. Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Bill Paterson, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Stacy Martin, Augustus Prew, Tony Way, Enzo Cilenti, Dan Skinner, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell. (R, 119 mins)

Producer Jeremy Thomas has tried to put together an adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel High-Rise since it was first published in 1975. Though regarded as unfilmable, it nearly came to be in the late '70s with director Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg intending it to be their next film after 1976's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. That never happened, nor did any other attempt, and the closest anyone got prior to now was when CUBE director Vincenzo Natali nearly got the greenlight in the early 2000s. It took 40 years, but Thomas finally got HIGH-RISE made, with acclaimed British cult filmmaker Ben Wheatley at the helm, working from a script by his wife and writing partner Amy Jump. Wheatley has acquired a cult following with the overrated WICKER MAN knockoff KILL LIST, the dark comedy SIGHTSEERS, and the unnerving A FIELD IN ENGLAND, but HIGH-RISE is his most ambitious project yet, working with his biggest budget and largest, most prestigious ensemble cast yet.

Combining the coldness of David Cronenberg (whose controversial 1996 film CRASH was based on the Ballard novel of the same name) with the absurdist black comedy of Terry Gilliam, HIGH-RISE is ultimately done in by a too-lengthy delay between the publication of its source novel and its eventual big-screen adaptation. Had Roeg and Mayersberg made this in 1977, it likely would've been prophetically visionary and as highly regarded as THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH  But now, in 2016, it's exhaustingly heavy-handed, hammering its points over the audience's head again and again, and even ending with a Margaret Thatcher soundbite just in case the themes of class struggle and the haves ruling the have-nots wasn't quite hammered home for the preceding two hours trip into the hellhole of dystopia and capitalism run amok. Med school instructor Robert Laine (Tom Hiddleston, in a role that would've been perfect for David Bowie had Roeg had his shot at this way back when) moves into the 25th floor of a Jenga-esque 40-story high-rise tower block. The swingin' 70s are here in all their glory, as Laine quickly hops into bed with sexually liberated single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and the residents of the high-rise form a very insulated community with every convenience--a gym, pool, 15th floor grocery store--readily available. The not-very-subtly-named Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building's architect, lives in the top floor penthouse, and when problems start arising--priorities for supply deliveries going to the wealthy one-percenters on the top floors and the lower class near the bottom being plagued by frequent power outages--he dismisses it as "teething" and "the building settling in." Disgruntled, philandering TV documentarian Wilder (Luke Evans) lives on one of the lower floors with his very pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and several kids, and eventually leads a revolt against the rich and powerful in the high-rise. Soon, all sense of order disintegrates as the high-rise becomes both the entire world of its occupants and a microcosm (SYMBOLISM!) of societal inequality and injustice: garbage piles up, food molds, and it's kill or be killed as life metamorphoses into a visceral orgy of rage, violence, hate-fucking, and all manner of degradation, debauchery, and destruction.

This feels a lot like SNOWPIERCER in a skyscraper, from the class struggle motif to Wilder's making his way to the top of the building, all the way to one character admonishing Laine to "know your place." Sure, in retrospect, it looks like SNOWPIERCER--and other movies--co-opted a lot of Ballard's ideas, and that's not the fault of the filmmakers here, but it doesn't do this belated adaptation any favors. It's also reminiscent of a somewhat less abrasive BLINDNESS, though Wheatley and Jump do keep the unpleasantness to a minimum, mostly implying it except for a few examples of shock value shots and dialogue (Royal to Laine, during a game of squash: "By the way, I hear you're fucking 374...she has a tight cunt as I recall"). Laine is the relative "everyman" audience surrogate, a successful career man who lives in the middle of the building and is comfortable screwing third-floor Charlotte and hobnobbing with penthouse Royal and other near-the-top residents, like sneering, asshole gynecologist Pangbourne (James Purefoy). Royal, the Trump of the high-rise if you want a present-day analogy, speaks of the building as both a living, breathing entity and as a symbol of society. It's all rather facile and obvious, though again, it could've been the angry FIGHT CLUB of its day had it been made 40 years ago. Whatever ham-fisted conclusions there are to draw from the events in HIGH-RISE have already been made decades ago. Wheatley scores some points for the film's retro-future look that ties in perfectly with Laine's observation that it "looks like a future that had already happened," and trippy, early '70s prog tunes by Amon Duul and Can, and a Portishead cover of ABBA's "S.O.S." provide a lot of atmosphere, but HIGH-RISE is repetitive, dated, and eventually oppressive. The filmmakers swing for the fences and get a few hits, but it goes on forever and you'll be ready for it to end long before it finally does.

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