Under the Skin of Capitalism or Something: HIGH- RISE

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I’m only halfway through the movie version of HIGH-RISE.

The novel is one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers, J.G. Ballard, whose kind of like a British cousin of Philip K. Dick, a suburban surrealist post-modern blah blah. Ballard’s novels are better as novels than many of Dick’s, better organized and focused. But David Cronenberg’s adaptation of CRASH made me think that even a very good movie like that just can’t translate Ballard’s specific quality of strangeness.

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HIGH-RISE is about Dr. Robert Laing moving into an apartment building that is the seventies version of cutting-edge. There are stores in the building, so other than going to work at the school of physiology, Laing can live his entire life at home. I thought beginning the movie with the building in decay was a big mistake. We see the place as a post-apocalyptic wasteland between four walls, up to and including a pet dog being roasted because there’s nothing else to eat. The movie then goes on to answer the question, “How did this happen?”

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I thought this was a big mistake–why not let us follow Laing and have some suspense as to what might happen? He sleeps with a single mother, gets involved in some drunken parties, and talks to rich guy Jeremy Irons, who lives on the roof of the building he owns. There are problems, but Irons seems more annoyed than concerned. Then the social fabric of the place starts to come undone. Those on the lower floors (get it?) suffer from the building’s problems first (get it?) while those on the upper floors still live in comfort (get it?), with mega-rich Irons insulated from all of that on his rooftop paradise (get it? YES, we get it, shut up already!).

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Citizen Kane? Lady from Shanghai? Nah, just looks cool.

When I had to stop watching at the one-hour point, I realized that without the promise of the apocalypse to come, I might’ve bailed out permanently at the half-hour point. The spotless production design would make sense but the few glimpses of the outside world we see are equally sterile. Showing a contrast between the apartment building and the rest of the world would separate the building even more, visually.

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Clint Mansell’s score is up front and effective. The CGI is okay, but CGI artists, please know we’re onto the trick of showing birds to try to make a shot look more realistic; it doesn’t work anymore.

But the characters are completely unlikable and, worse, uninteresting. I’m at the point where the power is finally going out completely, so maybe it’ll get good. I was so bored I kept trying to figure out which of two characters was being played by Jude Law, who isn’t in the movie.

So why am I even talking about a movie I don’t like?

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“You got me, kid!”

Because in one scene, Tom Hiddleston is demonstrating brain surgery technique at the school where he works. A man’s head rests on the table as Laing talks to several students. Laing then simply removes the skin from the head, revealing the skill, eyes, musculature beneath.

That one shot made watching this worthwhile. The way individuality is merely a matter of a few inches of skin, easily removed, is the most Ballardian thing in the movie.

Sorry, couldn’t find a still of the head.




    • Hi Dan O.,

      It’s that basic for me, too–I just didn’t give a damn about any of these people or their situation. Ballard’s writing makes the situations he cooks up seem so strange and yet believable that you’re compelled to keep reading. Here? “There goes a character jumping to his death…huh.”

      Thanks for commenting.


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