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by David J. Skal

GETTING HIGH


IT'S NO spoiler to reveal that Dr. Robert Laing, the narrative anchor of J.G. Ballard's High-Rise in both the 1975 novel and this year's ambitious film adaptation by Ben Wheatley, ends up eating a dog he has calmly cooked on his balcony in a sleek apartment tower outside of London. After all, it's the first line of the book and the opening scene in the movie, the story proper being a long flashback explaining the remarkable events leading up to the unfortunate Alsatian being turned on a spit.

And it's high time that dog's been eaten. One of the most puzzling mysteries of science fiction on screen has been the stubborn reluctance, or simple inability of filmmakers to pounce upon Ballard's surreally imagistic and disturbing dreamscapes. Spielberg's Empire of the Sun was a fine piece of filmmaking, but it was based on Ballard's actual experience as a child in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and not his unbridled imagination. Since digital wizardry can now bring almost any imaginative conceit to convincing life, what a refreshing use of CGI it would be to present the now eerily prescient eco-catastrophes of The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Wind from Nowhere, not to mention the Dali-esque fever visions of Ballard's seminal collection Vermilion Sands. (I don't know about you, but I've been fairly panting for a film version of "The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D" for decades. And don't get me going about "The Drowned Giant," which surely ranks among the twentieth century's most distinguished pieces of short fiction in any genre.)

Almost from its beginnings in the late fifties, Ballard's sf output was anything but conventional, delving deeply into inner rather than outer space ("The only truly alien planet is Earth" is one of his most frequently cited quotes). He is usually considered a leading avatar of the British "new wave" of the sixties, although Ballard in actuality is pretty much sui generis.

High-Rise (the book's working title was The High Life) was the third novel of the "urban disaster" triptych begun with Crash and Concrete Island, and the most successful from the point of detached, controlled stylization—one of Ballard's most recognizable trademarks. The story recounts an imaginary three months in the life of a forty-story residential monolith designed by a master architect to contain and serve all classes of society. The elite occupy the top floors, and below them are layer upon layer of upwardly mobile urban professionals (and below them, far hungrier wannabes) intent on competitive—and very literal—social climbing. When the population reaches the critical mass of full occupancy, residential behavior shifts ominously.

First they let their children run wild, and soon begin to deploy their own raucous inner children as well. Trash piles up, graffiti metastasizes, and the community regresses into a tribalism with more than a passing resemblance to The Lord of the Flies.

It's delicious, trenchantly engaging stuff. In interviews, Ballard credited his firsthand observations of large residential buildings offering every up-to-date amenity, which paradoxically irritated the inhabitants and drove petty conflicts. Another possible, if unacknowledged, inspiration may well have been a 1960s British sf show, Don Quick (a futuristic nod to Cervantes), well within the author's purview. One episode featured a giant, class-stratified apartment building in which the lower floor dwellers' body heat fueled the privileged lives of those above.

Ballard's critiques of consumer capitalism can be as wicked as George Romero in a shopping mall, but Ballard's urban zombies don't eat brains. They settle instead for a different kind of half-life, their zombification owing to the desensitization of affluence and technological "progress." But don't let the surface flatness of affect in High-Rise fool you. Ballard was a master of deadpan satire, something he did so well that many readers don't even detect what's hidden in plain sight.

This, to my mind, was the downfall of David Cronenberg's misguidedly solemn film adaptation of Crash, in which the director appeared to be taking his increasingly worshipful reviewers too seriously. The film was pitched to cineastes rather than real audiences, abandoning the audacious energy of his earlier films like Shivers, Scanners, and Videodrome. Crash was produced by Jeremy Thomas, who held on to the rights to High-Rise much longer—thirty years, according to some accounts, yielding far better results. An initial script by Paul Mayersberg, with Nicolas Roeg announced as director, went nowhere. The next trial balloon was a screenplay by Vicenzo Natal, taking only partial inspiration from the book, and set on a remote tropical island. It was to be directed by Richard Stanley, whose much-anticipated vision for The Island of Doctor Moreau with Marlon Brando was notoriously scuttled, and far more messily than his High-Rise (the excellent documentary Lost Soul tells the whole story).

As Laing, Tom Hiddleston proves himself again to be a deservedly busy actor, equally adept at Shakespeare (Coriolanus), country music (I Saw the Light), post-modernist vampirism (Only Lovers Left Alive), or old-fashioned Byronic menace-on-the-moors (Crimson Peak). His appearance in High-Rise coincided with his starring spy-turn in the superb John Le Carre-based miniseries The Night Manager, which has led to widespread speculation that he's being groomed as the new James Bond, which is fine by me. As in The Night Manager, Hiddleston's role in High-Rise requires him to remain alert but poker-faced for much of the proceedings, a spy in the house of retro-futurism.

Luke Evans (Dracula Untold) plays Wilder, a television cameraman and denizen of the tower's lower rungs, who becomes obsessed with producing a documentary on life inside the high-rise. Had High-Rise been rushed into production in the 1970s (ideally with Ken Russell at the helm), Oliver Reed might have excelled in the part. Wilder is the film's unrestrained id, opposite Laing's embattled superego. Evans tackles the part with manic gusto and ends up the expressive center of attention.

Wilder's wife, Helen, barely registers in the book, except as a clinically depressed housewife who thinks life would be better if they could only move to a higher floor, "the smarter residential districts somewhere between the 15th and 30th floors, where the corridors were clean, the children would not have to play in the streets, where tolerance and sophistication civilized the air." Almost needless to say, civilization is going to be the loser.

In the script by Wheatley's wife Amy Jump, Helen is heavily pregnant instead of profoundly depressed. It's a rather literal way of adding weight to a character, and it doesn't add depth. The role is taken by American actress Elisabeth Moss (the much admired, multi-layered Peggy Olsen on cable's Mad Men) with the assist of a credited accent coach. But in the end the gifted actress is wasted, just visiting several scenes like a guest that partygoers aren't sure they recognize. It's just about as odd as her Mad Men co-star John Hamm's peculiar appearance in the recent, Stanislaw Lem-inspired The Congress, and likely had something to do with getting the film funded through the bludgeoning presence of hit television show talent, even if the role in question is dramatically thankless.

Even more questionable is the needless fabrication of a motive for the spectacular set piece of a high-dive suicide. In the book it's an open-ended omen. In the film, Laing prompts the act by leading a colleague who has snubbed him socially to believe he has an inoperable brain tumor, and no reason to live. As a creative decision it's gratuitously nasty, rendering Laing a vindictive, manipulative sociopath for no good reason. The suicide was much more effective as Ballard intended it—the result of unseen, evocative, menacing forces.

Jeremy Irons is in top form as the architect Anthony Royal, who barely notices that his visionary social experiment is crumbling beneath his feet—literally, since he inhabits the penthouse. In the film, matching towers are going up nearby, but we never get a glance inside. Royal's bored wife gives fancy dress parties inspired by the court of Louis Quinze, and plays equestrian milkmaid games in the landscaped formal garden Royal has designed as a sprawling, monumental roof ornament. "Is that a horse?" Laing asks. "Probably," Royal answers distractedly (and not long afterward, the unlucky steed will follow the doomed Alsatian into a culinary afterlife). As Royal, Irons is more absent-minded professor than mad genius, and decidedly out of touch with the havoc he has wrought. He's especially good at just throwing away lines that could easily have been read with portentous, over-obvious inflection.

Production designer Mark Tildesley shrewdly evokes the 1970s with just enough shag carpeting, brutalist architecture and porn-star moustaches to give things a retro feel, but not so much that we are permitted the luxury of thinking the proceedings have nothing to do with the way we live now. Tildesley's digital impressions of the apartment towers' crazily cantilevered upper floors nicely conveys the sense of urban planning gone completely unhinged, as if the architect is daring his buildings to fall over. The conceit is one of several witty production touches not provided by Ballard that nonetheless effectively bolster his vision, like a cover of Abba's "S.O.S." (released the same year as Ballard's novel) that pops up exactly when the tower's social contract is fully frayed.

Ballard's science fiction has long drawn cult adulation, but perhaps it's time for wider appreciation. Consider: in his novel Hello, America, a post-apocalyptic reconnaissance mission to the United States finds Washington D.C. replaced by Las Vegas, with Charles Manson as president. Given the surreal political twists and turns of 2016, could Ballard be any more timely?

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