In the middle of the movie High-Rise, there is a montage that takes the situation from screwed-up to truly desolate. Our protagonist, Laing, undergoes what seems to be a critical mental break, and the titular high-rise luxury apartment building he lives in devolves into a wasteland. At the beginning of the montage, Laing is using the rowing machine in the still-pristine exercise room. By the end, the gymnasium is a dark ruin, and a trio of quasi-civilized men hover near the seemingly oblivious Laing and discuss whether or not they should beat and/or kill him.
This montage is well-shot and well-acted. It also blows up the pacing in an already clumsy, misshapen movie, speeding us from point C to point X. It’s a mistake, and a bit of a microcosm capturing what went wrong with the film adaptation of High-Rise.
To be fair, and to be clear, High-Rise is not a bad movie. It is, however, thoroughly underwhelming, particularly considering its potential and source material. High-Rise is a “cozy” dystopian drama about the devolution of a small contained society within a specific housing structure where the wealthy at the high-end exploit the lesser occupants at the low end until chaos and revolt become inevitable. For those who’ve seen Snowpeircer, it’s roughly similar, and in its own way not that much less improbable, although there’s nowhere near as much overt action, the gap between the haves and have-nots is considerably shorter, and the true revolt that brings down the system is essentially initiated by the elites in control. It has a very strong cast, starring Tom Hiddelston, Elisabeth Moss, Jeremy Irons, Luke Evans, and Sienna Miller. It has no excuse for being less than good other than simply suffering a failure of execution.
I’ve never been of the mind that being mediocre is somehow inherently worse than being bad. If you forced me to watch one of two movies and told me Movie A was average fare, while Movie B was atrocious, I’ll take my chances with Movie A ten times out of ten. I understand that sometimes a genuinely awful movie can be a curiosity, but I believe that some thoroughly middling movies can also rise to the level of curiosity, because many of them are squandered opportunities. Count High-Rise among those films.
As the novel begins, so does the movie, in the aftermath of the crisis that has turned a lavish tower block, so complete with amenities that you almost never have to leave, into an eerily homeostatic living hell. Things are bad, beyond bad even, but they also appear to be locked in place somewhat. That is to say, we get the impression that things at least won’t get significantly worse any time soon, so the next step for the story is to flashback to when things were decidedly less hellish. The token fidelity to the structure of the source material here is a mistake. Some things simply work much better on the page than on the screen, and when that becomes apparent, ideally, you realize you need to take a different approach. The book is able to maintain a distance and mysteriousness that the film doesn’t even try to mirror. Ballard speaks vaguely of violence and confrontation in this opening, whereas the film shows us a dead body and decrepit conditions. The novel gives us a third person narrator, whereas the film has Laing narrating. But these differences are only a problem because of the initial, half-hearted effort to follow the structure of the book when there’s no need to. This isn’t simply a case of the movie being too different or too similar to its source material: it’s a case of the people behind the film not recognizing how best to bring this story to their chosen medium.
Ballard’s novel never feels unsure of what it’s trying to be, but the High-Rise adaptation is hemorrhaging insecurity from start to hamfisted finish. The movie ends with a Margaret Thatcher quote that, in context, acts as a critique that aligns with my personal sensibilities, but simply doesn’t fit with the story that preceded it. It’s there, it seems, to spell out the movie’s themes in case the viewer still wasn’t sure of them after everything they’d seen. As a guy who thinks subtlety in fiction is sometimes overrated, I’m hesitant to complain about something being unsubtle. This, fortunately, is beyond that; it is uncertain. A truly confident adaptation of High-Rise wouldn’t be inclined to include such an afterword.
In between the misbegotten beginning and ending, and all around the similarly ill-advised montage, we get scenes from a would-be thriller, a would-be drama, a would-be satire, and a would-be psychedelic art flick. Such a hodgepodge can be effective in some cases, when backed by sound ideas, but in High-Rise it contributes to pacing issues that bloat the movie. The film ends up feeling longer than its two-hour runtime, and it’s all the more noticeable given how lean Ballard’s novel is.
Again, courtesy of a great cast and the general, mechanical competency and professionalism of all involved, High-Rise isn’t a bad picture. But a film that fails to be even above average when it could have been great, well, as I said before, that’s not worse than being bad, but it’s still, in its own way, somewhat painful to watch.