***1/2 (out of five)
Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 sci-fi dystopian nightmare High Rise is a faithful, stylised mess. It is chaotic and crazy, shambolic and discombobulating, all elements of the novel but not necessarily of coherent filmmaking. It is Wheatley’s most ambitious film but his second worst. It is also an artistic work of personal vision, for which it must be celebrated.
His best – and I hope you know all about this – is Kill List (2011), a staggeringly creepy assault on your brain inspired by, it seems, equal parts Pulp Fiction, The Shining and The Wicker Man. His follow-up Sightseers (2012) was a delicious very black comedy; 2013’s A Field In England was bonkers strange but possessed of an absolute vision. He has a very strong voice and is uncompromising, perhaps to his detriment here. (I have not seen his debut feature, Down Terrace (2009)).
His coup de theatre is to set the film not in “the future” but in the future as a film director working in 1975 might be able to visualise it. Thus it’s both “futuristic” and retro, with sideburns, wide ties and big moustaches accompanying concrete bunkers out of Logan’s Run. It’s a brilliant conceit brilliantly realised on the production design side; the “high rises” themselves look exactly as I’d always imagined them (the novel is one of my all-time favourites).
Unfortunately Wheatley has a second “big concept” up his sleeve, which is to let the storytelling fall to pieces as the civilisation of the titular high rise does. The second act is essentially a montage of madness, unlike the novel’s deliberate linear progression from civility to orgasmic anarchy. I worry that audiences that have not read the novel won’t have a clue what’s going on. It’s a shame, because this was Wheatley’s chance to show a much wider audience his jazz, but his jazz remains too free for the general crowd. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing.