The Ascent To Hell
One of the good things about getting older is you see the repetition of things (good and bad), both the idiocy of human history negatively repeating itself as it is so petulantly wont to do, and the comfort of routine bringing a sensation of security. That impression of course is ill founded and chaos rules supreme, and always will. We mere mortals just collectively agree to a few universal perceptions presented by our declared superiors, intellectuals or leaders whilst we all nod in agreement and genuflect our individuality before them, proclaiming ‘Yes! That’s what life is’. It’s not though.
We are all effectively lab rats for the few years we get to exist. That’s not to belittle existence, it is after all somewhat amazing and I highly recommend it. But we are evolving experiments, on ourselves, on each other and for the individuals that we have allowed tell us are our ‘betters’. Apparently our overlords through their status, position and supposed education have been groomed to guide us through the discord, the organic melee that we are. Of course the lauded are experimenting on us too, their education is just certificated paper armour against uncertainty and doubt, it’s a perceived wisdom, and as in the case of architect Anthony Royal, this is all made up of smokey walls and hall mirrors.
Royal is a sociological maze builder, a renowned architect in the towering book ‘High Rise’ written by J.G. Ballard in 1975. He is constructing a series of towers that he believes will rectify the ills of society, and unbeknownst to himself the blueprint to his own messiah complex. Ballard was clearly aware of the artifice of the changing landscape around him at the time with such habitational pedestals of arrogance and folly sprouting up to much fanfare, proclaiming a new modern world and completely ignoring how people have naturally gathered together over the entire existence of Man. For all the latest science involved in their construction, they were effectively bludgeoning a round peg into a forty story square hole.
With such timeless social commentary in the framework of the book it was almost predestined for the movie screens, and indeed producer Jeremy Thomas had tried to forge it with Nicolas Roeg in the late 1970s. Fast forward to 2016 and we have the construction scaffolding being removed as we stare in awe at ‘High Rise’ (2015) directed by Ben Wheatley (Kill List), adapted by his wife Amy Jump (Kill List, Sightseers) and Thomas still on board as one of the producers. And it is a revelation.
Starring Tom Hiddleston as Dr. Robert Laing who has just moved into to what is effectively a Tower of Babel, where science (Man) arrogantly declares conquest over nature. Laing is a young doctor who because of his position in society can afford one of the higher ranking floors (25th), whereas the not so monetarily graced (mainly working class families) live below him, and with the more affluent, fabulously arrogant elite one stairwell step closer to the gods (Royal’s penthouse) above. It’s a world where imposed social glass ceilings are now made of reinforced concrete.
Laing stuck in the middle is pretty much an outsider to all in that he is an amusement to the different classes, and they an ongoing sociology/ psychology study to him. He recognises the live experiment Royal is conducting and willingly participates and manipulates. Despite the immaculate attention and academic consideration Royal (Jeremy Irons) has applied to his ark, cracks start to appear immediately, and spread swiftly.
As the building starts to trip, bruise and breakdown, so too the fabric of social norms and behaviours. Tensions flare as the lights go out. As the mess and filth builds the inhabitants degrade themselves to ever base levels, but the party must go on, whatever the ramifications, the champagne and blood must flow.
Wheatley has shrewdly set the movie in the 70s which allows him to stick very closely to the dark tone and mechanics of the source material. It also allows him to create an extremely distinct, ravishingly beautiful seductive looking world, a science fiction Ikea opera resplendent in all it’s visual play. Even as the various (equally distinct) characters parade around they do so more in a sweeping balletic movement rather than walk, interspersed with incredible violence of course.
Not only is the cinematography by Laurie Rose stunning, it is emulated by production design (Mark Tildesley), score (Clint Mansell) and effectively every single person involved. This is a collective of people at the very top of their game. The acting is outstanding, from the regal Irons, statuesque Hiddleston, feral Luke Evans (as documentary maker Richard Wilder), his homely wife Elisabeth Moss (Helen Wilder), and the
seductive Sienna Millar (Charlotte Melville) to everyone else is mesmerising. It’s an incredible piece of work that in a flattering way had me thinking of the power of Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971).
Unfortunately it’s not without it’s own glitches. Maybe because of time run constraints or a bad snagging list, the gradual degradation in the High Rise world in the book is far more creeping and as such more believable. It feels like the were a few floors skipped in the movie, to which extent I REALLY hope there will be a directors cut with extra footage allowing some of the characters to really glow in their maleficence. It is a piece of such hypnotic enthralling dark beauty (a masterpiece with a wonky ‘m’) that you are a rabbit smiling into the headlights, with the maelstrom of life and splintered glass crashing through your mind, while Abba is playing on the car stereo. And there is zero doubt in my (now Nordic disco sliced) mind that Ben and Amy are well on the way to picking up the mantle from Stanley Kubrick and running down their own dark movie lanes, screaming (with joy) all the way.
High Rise is out on 18th March.