I keep thinking about High Rise and Dredd. It’s an obvious comparison, maybe – as my main man Mister Attack says, it’s there in all the establishing shots – but also a strangely inappropriate one on some levels. We’re dealing with the wrong sort of carnivalesque here, I think, and that makes me wonder: what would it take to establish these soap opera grotesques in a stern action movie context?
Maybe an unsubtle political joke? One you might find in a narky, anti-authoritarian kids comic? One that might work better in 2000AD than it does in a J.G. Ballard adaptation?
Enter the voice of Lady Thatcher, invoked by an unfussed child who has spent the whole movie straining to glimpse the future through the carnage, those withering tones broadcasting over a makeshift radio, talking about market capitalism and the triumph of individual freedom:
Well, okay, that’s from Hellblazer #3 by John Ridgway and Jamie Delano, but you get the idea.
Wheatley, Jump, Hiddlestone and co perform a series of demolitions in High Rise, all of which are more effectively executed than certain real world efforts in my neck of the woods have been – if less slick than others.
In the source novel, Ballard collapses Royal’s vision of building as crucible into Laing’s professional purview: social space blurs into inner space, and is transformed into a strange parody of the workings of the mind // a testament to its capacity for destruction. Wheatley and Jump collapse Ballard’s vision into something far grubbier, a lower order of unreality, one full of League of Gentleman-esque grotesques, slow motion dance scenes, and moments where it seems that the audience may yet dream their way into a Benny Hill sketch. Some viewers have been repelled by the film’s deliberatelydated bacchanalia, but this sort of discord is Wheatley and Jump’s speciality.
I’ve not seen Down Terrace but Kill List, Sightseers and A Field In England are equal parts mystical England and mysteriously persistent bowel complaint, and so it proves with the urban alienation of High Rise. The big ideas are still there, in other words, communicated in the Gilliam-edged simulation of period details, in matter of fact dialogue that matches Portishead’s cover of Abba’s ‘SOS’ for manic joylessness, and in cuts that don’t so much jump as flicker (like failing lights // firing neurons?).
Why, then, does the movie need to underline its demonstration of the way grand modernizing plans and atomized/liberated living condition can act as multipliers of brutality by gazing out at the audience and saying “A bit like Thatcher, innit?”
These flaws are built into the foundation of the work, in the occasional Watchmen-esque dialogue that doesn’t so much ask as demand that the viewer see double – Laing is “finished” at the start of the movie, and concludes it by explaining that he has been talking “to the building” in case you hadn’t realized that you were already living there. Like the final flourish, these elements feel like they belong in other modes/media. To keen to make a case for their cleverness, they somehow make the film feel trashier than it otherwise might, opening up the path to Dredd ramping in on his Lawmaster, or the Attack the Block crew stepping up to defend the whole mess from getting even worse.
These are the only things that you can build on these shaky foundations: enjoyment of a lightly ironized authoritarianism, or the thrill of finding a sort of desperate camaraderie in the ruins. I’ve thrilled at less before and will again, but honestly, it’s not enough and you know it.
If High Rise has any true value it’s in reigniting the urge to rip it up and start again.
In the end, this is one program of urban regeneration I can actually get behind. Better to demolish High Rise than to continue to live in it, and even if I don’t want to pretend that my aesthetic critiques – critiques of weaknesses so tantalising that I could fill them with fan fiction, small textual insecurities that show me the ways I find to survive here a little too clearly – are a substitute for new social thinking, this combative mode is more promising than Laing’s sense of equilibrium in chaos.
Look outside: the future’s already here // already ruined. What are you going to do with it?