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I apologize for the lateness of this review. I was only sent the screener last week and didn't realize it was already several weeks past the release date.

Feature


Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) recently moved into a luxury, high-rise apartment building designed by the enigmatic Mr. Royal (Irons). With a literal divide of the classes, the wealthiest residents live on the upper floors with the best amenities while residents on the lower floors experience routine blackouts and other disruptions of basic services. As additional flaws in the building begin to emerge, both physically and socially, the lower floor residents revolt, turning the building into a battlefield for a class war. (From Magnet’s official synopsis)

 High-Rise
British director Ben Wheatley’s fifth feature-length film, High-Rise, is a lush and meaty exercise in form over function that manages to rise above the doldrums of empty spectacle. Every stylistic choice, no matter how strange or random, is steeped in ideas, references, and themes. I have not read J.G. Ballard’s supposedly ‘unfilmable’ original novel, but suspect that the affected language is directly lifted from the text, while the occasionally inelegantly surrealistic tone belongs to the director and his writer/co-editor, Amy Jump. Such eloquent, yet busy wording will probably prove insurmountable for some viewers, who will dismiss it as needlessly pretentious. But, when coupled with the super complex stream of conscious editing, outré imagery, and literary references, it has an odd logic. It’s similar to Luis Buñuel’s more overtly political movies, where weird stuff is just taken for granted and horrifying circumstances become vague nuisances. The plot is basically lost in a series of mostly standalone sequences that build into a thematic story, rather than a narrative through-line. This also keeps the audience at a distance and, even as someone that enjoyed the film, I found my interest waning from the lack of plot structure, specifically during the saggy middle-section. Fortunately, the onslaught of nightmarish montage sequences helps set the stage for an unforgettably assaultive final act.

The movie fan can’t help but see a slew of David Cronenberg references in Wheatley and Jump’s adaptation (P.S.: Cronenberg’s Crash, 1996, is also based on a Ballard story). The hyper-modern luxury tower, which itself represents the trials of a capitalist social ladder and becomes a prison for its inhabitants, is at the center of Cronenberg’s feature debut, Shivers (aka: They Came From Within and The Parasite Murders). Shivers and Ballard’s novel were released the same year (1975), so it’s unlikely one was inspired by the other, though both may have drawn influence from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which is ground zero for ascending social systems in science fiction (as seen in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, 2013). Wheatley isn’t the only filmmaker to borrow this concept for genre purposes, as it was also the basis for Lamberto Bava’s Demons 2[i] (1985) and George A. Romero’s [i]Land of the Dead (2005). Perhaps the better comparison would be Cronenberg by way of Terry Gilliam, as High-Rise’s satirical slant caters more to something like Brazil. Cronenberg enjoys wordy discussion brimming with almost abrasive subtext (just see Cosmopolis, 2012), but he’s rarely so willing to just be silly. Hiddleston’s character is a somewhat apt stand-in for Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce’s character in Brazil), as both are forced to survive impossible social situations in which they might be the only sane person in the entire world.

 High-Rise
Apparently, producer Jeremy Thomas had been trying to made a movie version of High-Rise since the ‘70s and some very interesting filmmakers/writers had been attached, including Nicolas Roeg ( Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth), Paul Mayersberg ( Croupier, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence), Richard Stanley ( Hardware, Dust Devil), and Vincenzo Natali ( Cube, Splice). Wheatley fits in nicely with this collection of conceptually-driven filmmakers, especially alongside an uncompromising artist like Stanley and Roeg. His previous work, specifically Kill List (2011) and A Field in England (2013), has been smart, though never entirely successful. The lack of similarities between these films and High-Rise is particularly remarkable. There are tonal consistencies, but, aside from the use of abstract slow motion (ala A Field in England) and herky-jerky hand-held work towards the end of the movie (ala Kill List), Wheatley has continued to grow as a filmmaker from movie to movie, rarely repeating himself and appearing more confident with each picture.

Video


High-Rise appears to have been shot on old-fashioned 35mm film, given the noticeable film-like grain, but I’m told that it was an entirely digital production (imdb.com is not helpful in this matter). It seems that Wheatley and cinematographer Laurie Rose are just pressing a particularly ‘filmic’ look with purposefully hazy/smokey lighting schemes. Those hazy schemes, soft focus, and dirty anamorphic lenses mean that wide-angle edges are a bit plush, but the complexity of the patterns and gradients are rarely lost in the smog. The (apparently) digital grain looks a bit snowy in these instances, but in a controlled manner. The darker, more expressionistic images are quite sharp in comparison, including crisp textures, hard lines, and consistently deep blacks. On the other hand, the very darkest scenes have problems with warm hues blocking and minor edge haloes. The expressive and eclectic colour schemes are generally pastel and consistently poppy, though there is a sort of golden tint that fades as insanity begins to take over the tower. As the environment goes to hell, daylight sequences become cooler and cleaner, while night/dark sequences are baked by searing oranges and reds.

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Audio


High-Rise is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The centered vocal mix is a bit too subtle for my taste at times and I found myself struggling with the volume switch to understand the dialogue. On the other hand, the environmental ambience is quite successful, including both naturalistic sounds and extremely stylized effects that are mixed to create a subjective point of view. The surround field is lively throughout the entire film, even during the quietest moments. The score was supplied by one of my personal favourite composers, Clint Mansell, who goes hog wild with outstanding baroque melodies – something I don’t recall hearing from the usually minimalist composer on any other occasion. This fantastic, occasionally synth-assisted (and not entirely original) music sounds beautiful, full-bodied, and creatively integrated into the more impressionistic sound effects editing.

Extras


  • Commentary with director Ben Wheatley, producer Jeremy Thomas, and star Tom Hiddleston – This pleasant track mixes raw behind-the-scenes information with personable stories. Perhaps recognizing that his part in the film is kind of limited, Hiddleston sometimes acts as moderator, prodding Wheatley and Thomas for information whenever the discussion slows down. At the same time, the producer and director toss the mic back to the actor whenever a big and/or difficult acting moment arises. There are some giggles, but none of the commentators ever lose track of the discussion and otherwise tend to remain relatively screen-specific.
  • Building The World Of High-Rise: 70’s Style (9:02, HD) – Wheatley, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux, and production designer Mark Tildesley discusses the film’s strange ‘70s-inspired brutalist/futuristic style.
  • Heady Special Effects (3:36, HD) – Special effects designer Dan Martin briefly explores the work behind the super gross severed head autopsy scene.
  • Breaking Down High-Rise and its Tenants (14:50, HD) – The cast talks about the film’s themes and characters.
  • High-Rise: Bringing Ballard To The Big Screen (3:58, HD) – Unfortunately, the extra I was most curious about – the adaptation process – is one of the shortest featurettes in the set.
  • Trailer and trailers for other Magnolia/Magnet releases


 High-Rise

Overall


High-Rise is a challenging, sometimes great, sometimes overwrought film that is ultimately worth the effort that an audience puts into watching it. I can’t imagine watching it again anytime soon, but definitely recommend that fans of speculative fiction and unusual takes on science fiction staples give it a chance, because, despite my constant mentioning its similarities to other films in this review (I was rushed!), it really is a one-of-a-kind experience. The image quality is sharp, the sound is outrageously immersive (even if the dialogue is a bit inconsistent), and the relatively fluffy extras include a very good director/producer/star commentary track.

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* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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