Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

2010: The Year We Make Contact

2010 The Year We Make ContactWhile it has been divisive since its release and has been described as everything from plodding and wilfully obscure to visionary there’s no deny that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was and remains a unique work in the sci-fi film canon. At its conclusion however while it certainly asked more questions than it answered I wasn’t left wondering what happens next.

Arthur C. Clarke, the original film’s writer and originator, though had other ideas and several sequels have since emerged in print, one of which, 2010 Odyssey Two, was made into a sequel to the original movie in 1984 as 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

From the start it’s clear that Peter Hyams’ film is much more down to earth and straight forward than its predecessor as we arrive on earth in the titular year and meet Dr Heywood Floyd (Roy Scheider), the originator of the Discovery mission from the first film.

From there he joins a mission to investigate the loss of the Discovery led by a joint group of Russian and American scientists and astronauts – unfortunately at the same time the two countries stand on verge of war, the Cold War seemingly not having been resolved as occurred in the real world.

Unfortunately while 2001 is, for the most part, timeless, 2010 feels immediately dated, not just by its ongoing Cold War setting but by the production design that couldn’t look more 80s if it tried.

Roy Scheider

Roy Scheider

Usually I find this easy to look over but something here made that hard, possibly it was the rather obvious story that, while described as a thriller, never really thrilled on any level and any political intrigue that could have existed never properly manifested.

Meanwhile the mystery of the monolith felt like a side-show until the third act at which point its effect became a bit too obvious – particularly when compared to the enigmatic climax of 2001.

Despite a strong cast featuring Helen Mirren, John Lithgow and more alongside Scheider it was hard to really get more than an archetypical view of their characters and it was only the returning voice of HAL 9000 and Keir Dullea’s lost astronaut David Bowman that had any real presence.

As they only show up in the third act properly (though are hinted at throughout) this made the first part harder work than it should have been.

Leonov encounters Discovery

Leonov encounters Discovery

Though the climax came with some nice Jupiter based visuals I couldn’t escape the feeling it was all a bit too obvious, and while it left avenues for more sequels and its message of unity is an important and worthy one, compared to both its predecessor and other sci-fi of the time 2010 falls somewhat flat.

So, while it’s not a total disaster and was mildly diverting it was nothing more, which I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by.

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Eraserhead

Eraserhead posterWhere does one start with David Lynch’s debut feature film, Eraserhead?

So much has been written and said about it since 1976 this may well be redundant and as I write I’m still in something of a state of shock following such a mesmerisingly intense experience.

The story follows a young man named Henry (Lynch regular Jack, here credited as John, Nance) who we (and he) discover has fathered a child with a girl named Mary (Charlotte Stewart another member of Lynch’s ensemble of players). After a quick marriage Mary moves into Henry’s rather basic apartment with their baby, and so on.

All that sounds rather normal when described like that but, surrounding a plot that could easily come from a fairly standard drama, or even soap opera, Lynch constructs a world like no other, part post-apocalyptic hell, part internalised nightmare-scape, part 1950’s Americana.

The nearest touchstone I could think of during the first part of Eraserhead was Richard Lester’s surreal vision of post-nuclear war London, The Bed Sitting Room.

eraserhead elevator - Jack Nance

Nance as Henry takes the elevator

From there though Lynch’s work adds layer upon layer of questions with absolutely no answers making the audience find what they will in the building torment of Henry.

From the start it’s hard to not conclude that everything here is designed to unsettle. The clash of standard dramatic conventions with nightmare visions is the broad stroke of this, but it comes in many forms with a non-stop barrage of noise, all seemingly diegetic but often unexplained, with volume levels often entirely mismatching what we are seeing on-screen. 

Equally the set design, limited though it is to a few rooms and exteriors, all shot in black and white, is unapologetically stark but with a decrepit industrial richness that defies its low-budget origins.

eraserhead dinner

Mr X and Henry at dinner

Moments like the early family dinner scene are at once wholesome in the way of 1950s middle America and horrifically corrupt with its man-made mini-chickens – here in particular the idea of maintaining normality in the face of extreme horror, as seen in The Bed Sitting Room, springs to mind.

And then there is the baby… I don’t think there are words to describe or translate this creation without seeing it in action but suffice to say it is at once astonishing and agonisingly atrocious, not because it’s poorly constructed, but because it is quite so convincingly real and never fully explained.

Nance’s performance as Henry is a largely understated tour de force that helps the rest of the film with creating its own sense of totally unnatural naturalism and he is as mesmerising as the visuals with his innocent, wide-eyed expression leading us through what may be his own nightmare.

Eraserhead exterior

Henry takes a walk

The second half of the film just turns this all up even further and there are moments that suggest things to come in Lynch’s later work on Dune, Twin Peaks and Lost Highway before it all comes to a sudden, enigmatic, haunting climax.

Words like unique and visionary are bandied about all too regularly but with Eraserhead David Lynch created something that is certainly both of things.

As much a work of art as it is a horror film and as much a soap opera as it is an exploration of a broken society, it sets the scene for much of Lynch’s work to come as it asks many questions and emphatically refuses to give any answers – and believe me I don’t have any either!

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Hello America by JG Ballard

Hello America by J.G. Ballard book coverIt seems that the notion of The American Dream is one that keeps cropping up in my reviews recently, most notably with La La Land and Straight Outta Compton, so it feels natural, if strangely coincidental, that I now look at a book that seems to take that dream and turn it into a kind of twisted nightmare.

While J.G. Ballard is well-known for his dystopian science fiction visions from the likes of High-Rise and Crash, Hello America was not one I was familiar with when its blurb and cover caught my eye, but from the off its clear that it bears certain resemblances to the story of Lang in the tower block.

Here our hero is Wayne, a young stowaway from a back to basics Europe of the 2100’s, who has snuck aboard a vessel sailing for an evacuated USA. It’s 100 years since North America was abandoned in the face of an energy crisis as oil ran dry and the once most powerful nation on Earth was laid to waste by climactic devastation.

Arriving in this New World wasteland Wayne and the members of the expedition head off from a derelict New York to Washington DC and beyond.

The journey and the relatively mysterious lead male protagonist are certainly familiar from High-Rise, though Wayne feels far more sympathetic than Lang and the eventual arrival of the equivalent to Royal reveals a far less sympathetic antagonist. Along with this the general sense of growing disaster as the story goes on is similar to High-Rise but on a far grander physical scale.

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

What sets it apart is a sense of optimism, particularly in the first half, where Wayne’s vision of ‘The American Dream’ is infectious and really sucked me into the adventure, much as it does some of his fellow travellers, and the way Ballard paints the landscape of the ‘Great American Desert’ is masterful and hugely visual.

The first half of the book builds the tension to breaking point with what feels like a climax in the depth of the desert before Ballard throws a marvellous curve ball that almost resets things but goes on in eventually more disturbing and absurd ways as Wayne’s dream becomes a real American Nightmare – to say much more would be too much of a spoiler.

The fact that Wayne dreams of being 45th president of the USA is particularly pertinent given recent real world events, but that’s just a ‘happy’ coincidence, but there is clearly a political message at the heart of Ballard’s writing coming as this did at a time when a former film star had recently entered The White House.

Hello America original artwork

The cover of the first edition of Hello America

As well as the politics there is an ecological message which is writ large and obvious throughout though has lost none of its necessity and power since the book was released in the early 1980s and some slightly heavy-handed consumerist points add another layer.

All of this does make Hello America‘s purpose a little unfocused but it is certainly trying to say something and, generally, succeeding.

Where it doesn’t succeed quite so well is in the second half of the story that almost becomes too absurd to take seriously, though it just about holds things together as it reaches a hugely tense and surprisingly cinematic climax – I’m amazed no one has twisted this into a big budget blast-a-thon blockbuster.

This makes Hello America a book that, while easier to read than High-Rise, less physically controversial than Crash and a little unfocused, is none the less enjoyable and bridges hard sci-fi ideals with readable adventure in a very satisfying fashion.

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Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond posterBack when JJ Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise with the ingenious time twisting Star Trek back in 2009, adding a modern, action-adventure edge to the formula laid out by Gene Roddenberry in the mid-1960s and developed through to the 1990s, it seemed the series had found a new life.

However following Star Trek Into Darkness, a film that while enjoyable was riddled with plot inconsistencies and riffed a little too much of the series stone cold classic The Wrath Of Kahn, it seemed it had all lost steam as Abrams headed off to breath new life into Star Wars with The Force Awakens.

With Justin Lin at the helm Star Trek Beyond hit cinemas in 2016 with somewhat less fanfare, dwarfed by ‘the other Star franchise’, and so catching it now at home my expectations were somewhat lower…

Left to right: Chris Pine plays Kirk, Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah and Anton Yelchin plays Chekov in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

Kirk (Pine), Jaylah (Boutella) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin)

Interestingly for those of us who’ve followed the series for a long time, Beyond starts out three years into the Enterprise’s first five-year mission as Kirk and his crew are exploring the boundaries of the Federation.

Here they encounter a new alien aggressor with, as one would expect, a suitably weaponised maguffin to kick off the kind of action adventure we’ve come to expect.

As expected it is Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) who provide the main core of the film but even more so than previously the rest of the main crew are all part of the action, particularly Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) all having more pivotal roles. On top of this we meet new character, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who fits in well with the established cast.

star trek beyond krall

Krall (Elba)

Scripted by Pegg and Doug Jung, Beyond is, for the most part, all fairly formulaic and never really does anything to break the mould of either the previous two films, or big budget blockbusters in general but for the most part is a fun romp. That said it relies a little too heavily on the action side for Star Trek which loses something of what makes the original series what it is.

On top of this it suffers from having an antagonist who never really feels properly threatening as, while Idris Elba’s Krall starts off looking fairly mean and nasty, it’s not long before he becomes somewhat ineffectual leading to a denouement strongly reminiscent of Into Darkness but I never had the sense that Kirk and co wouldn’t prevail.

bones and spock

Bones (Urban) and Spock (Quinto)

There are also moments that put this clearly post-Guardians of the Galaxy giving it an occasional ‘wacky’ tone that doesn’t really suit, including a fairly major and pivotal music cue.

Despite all this Star Trek Beyond was a fun way to spend a couple of hours and while it won’t stick in the memory like some of its forbears, it maintains some of their essence, but for a third film in a row the highlight is Quinto’s Spock.

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Star Trek: First Contact

Star Trek First Contact posterBack when JJ Abrams and Paramount Studios partially rebooted the Star Trek franchise in 2009 I embarked on my own now considerably more than five-year mission to rewatch the entirety of Trek.

That’s taken me to peaks (Start Trek II: The a Wrath of Kahn, the climax of Star Trek: The Next Generation) and troughs (Season 3 of The Original Series, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) but now I’ve reached probably the highlight of my cinematic Trek viewing (I was too young for Kahn first time round), Star Trek: First Contact.

As this movie was something of a highlight of my teenage cinema going I’m pleased to report it stands up pretty well, enjoyment-wise. Taking the most popular villainous alien race from The Next Generation TV series, The Borg, and reuniting the cast last seen together in Star Trek: Generations it contains many of the standard tropes of Trek with much talking and debate, time travel and moral dilemmas aplenty.

In this it manages to be one of the most action packed of the original run of the Star Trek films with a spectacular space battle in the first act that sees a decimated Federation fleet going up against a single Borg cube and kick starting the story of the Enterprise crew heading back in time to save the future.

Picard, Data and some less fortunate crew members

Picard, Data and some less fortunate crew members

While it’s all very enjoyable for a Trek fan like myself, it’s hard to avoid the fact that, once the main story really kicks in, the movie does revert into feeling a bit too much like a longer, bigger budget, version of a TV episode.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what causes this but part of it is the way director Jonathan Frakes (also Cdr. William Riker) has the film shot.

I get the feeling much of this was to try to create a claustrophobic feeling on board the invaded ship, but it serves to make it look far cheaper and smaller in scale than it could be.

Along with this the scenes in the mountains of Montana on Earth come with very few establishing shots or cinematically impressive views of the bunker complex which continue the TV budget feel and Frakes doesn’t really come with a great pedigree in cinema before or since.

Thankfully many of the performances keep it enjoyable and lively.

Borg cube battle

The battle with the Borg

Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard does exactly what he does best throughout while the continuing story of Commander Data’s ‘becoming more human’ gives Brent Spiner the chance to continue his always mesmerisingly eccentric turn as the android officer.

Beyond that the guest stars feel like they’re going through the motions with James Cromwell’s Zephram Cochrane being rather one-dimensional, but fun, and Alice Krige’s Borg Queen doing little but giving a physical form to an antagonist previously notable for its lack of individual physical form, so somewhat spoiling the effect.

All this, if I’m totally honest, makes for a bit of a rough ride of a movie in many ways as it’s probably a bit too self-referencing, but comes with a certain extra joie de vivre often missing from Star Trek that makes it an entertaining couple of hours, even if it does feel like it could have been a TV special rather than a full-blown movie.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story posterOver the last 40 years it’s fair to say that the galaxy of Star Wars has become something of a safe space for family friendly action adventure cinema – certainly there has been plenty of peril but in the end it’s always been a good old romp of heroes overcoming villains in the most ‘white hat’ wearing of ways.

So, as the famous line ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ appeared on the screen at the start of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story there was a familiar sense of anticipation for more of the same.

As soon as that faded though it was clear this wasn’t exactly what we’ve come to expect from Star Wars – gone was the orchestral blast and iconic, scene setting ‘crawl’ as we were dropped to a new, fairly desolate, planet and a new set of characters, in this case the Erso family, hastily followed by new Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and a squadron of Death Troopers, a kind of black clad, amped up version of the Stormtroopers of old.

Here we meet our hero Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and, along with her, witness the death of her mother and apparent capture of her father, Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), followed by here being rescued by mysterious apparent-Rebellion member Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker).

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones)

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones)

While this has overtones of the introduction of Luke Skywalker in A New Hope the whole thing has a much greater sense of danger, and this is something that continues throughout the movie as Jyn and her rag-tag band of rebels visit various planets new and old in their hunt for the plans to a rumoured Imperial super weapon.

While this story is all very exciting there are moments where it lapses into video game plotting but for the most part these are easy to overlook.

Despite the inter-planetary setting and background of the rebellion against the empire Rogue One has a much smaller feel than the main run of the series with a focus on Jyn’s story as she discovers the rebellion with the help of pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Krennic’s role in the creation of the Death Star.

This gives a lot of background to things we’ve heard mentioned in past films so, while not integral to the over arching plot (that chronological begins in The Phantom Menance and, at this stage, continues to The Force Awakens) it is interesting to see and with predominantly new characters doesn’t feel like it’s treading on the toes of the Skywalker saga like some other prequels have done.

Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn)

Added to this, also setting it apart from the previous Star Wars films, is a genuinely political edge. While the Empire remains undeniably ‘evil’ (how could anything led be Darth Vader and The Emperor be anything but), shades of grey are added to the Rebellion.

While this doesn’t cause any effect to the grand run, it gives Rogue One a slightly different angle on things that makes it feel more down to earth and, in a sense, more grown up, reflecting, as it goes, something of real world religious and ideological conflict (though it is more general in this than specific).

Even if some of the new characters are somewhat basically drawn, much like side characters in the other Star Wars films, their stereotypical nature make them easy to get behind so, when we reach the third act, there is a genuine sense of tension, even though we have a fair idea of the final outcome.

Battle of Scarif

Battle of Scarif

This third act also includes some of the bravest story moments since The Empire Strikes Back and possibly even tops that, something rare to see in a world of ‘happily ever after’ blockbusters from the likes of Marvel.

Where the film falters is in its overuse of call backs to the original trilogy. Hints and suggestions would have been nice but a few are just too on the nose and detract from the final product.

Most notable among these are a slightly too uncanny valley computer generated version of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin (surely he could have been seen as a hologram thus losing any realism issues) and a Darth Vader who somehow just doesn’t feel quite right, though finally getting to see his much rumoured Sith Temple/castle was a nice if unnecessary touch.

Death Star strikeWhat this all amounts to is a genuinely exciting ride with enough grit around the edges to make it something a bit different while maintaining enough of what we love about Star Wars to make a fine couple of hours in the cinema, though this one may not be for all the family in the way that the main series is.

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Arrival

Arrival movie posterIt’s always a treat when the chance arises to see a film with very little foreknowledge. In that regard in a world of Marvel cookie cutter repetition and uninspiring sci-fi blockbusters Arrival made for a nice change, as all I knew going in was that it was sci-fi and it had generally favourable reviews.

I will admit that the fact it starred Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner didn’t fill me with hope, while I don’t recall seeing either be actively bad, nothing springs to mind that I’ve seen that made me excited by their presence.

Forest Whitaker is equally one of those actors who never seems to play a bad role but here wasn’t the driving force of the movie and was in what gets called a ‘character actor’ kind or part.

All three here though were very good but Adams was a particular stand out as she is the linchpin of the film not only for the narrative, but also the central point of the ideas it deals with.

The narrative is, as I have suggested a fairly standard science fiction trope of ‘first contact’. A mysterious set of space craft appear in 12, apparently random, locations around the planet and military and scientific experts proceed to try to and work out what they want with the usual mix of aggressive posturing and paranoid conspiracy.

Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival

Amy Adams as Louise Banks

On this level there is the added extra of a reflection of what’s become known as ‘post-truth’ with the CIA, ‘alt-right’ media and (slightly stereotypical) international tensions all present forming the background to the other narrative centring on Adams’ linguist, Louise Banks.

This other aspect is hard to discuss without spoilers, other than to say it deal with perceptions of time and human nature in regards of free will and determinism. What makes it particularly good is that it does what the best sci-fi does, in the way of 2001 or Close Encounters, it leaves the audience open to discuss what they’ve just seen while answering enough questions to be satisfying.

Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Arrival

Adams and Jeremy Renner as Ian Donnelly

This is the films biggest strong point as, while the basic plot and performances, along with the special effects, are all engaging it is how it gets your mind ticking over that is Arrival’s most impressive feature (that said I’m not sure mid-afternoon in a busy city makes for the most conducive way of watching it in that regard).

Arrival exists as a stand out of recent sci-fi for two reasons; first it is a compelling story that is genuinely absorbing and constantly leaves the viewer in suspense of what is to come, the other is the sense of raising open questions that already have me wanting to see the film again and discuss it with others who have seen it, and most of this comes through a stand out performance from Adams that is, at its best, genuinely effecting.

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Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan – Director’s Cut

Star Trek - The Wrath of Khan - Directors CutIn 1982 the Star Trek franchise was, for the second and not the last time, in a problematic state. The original series had been axed more than a decade earlier, two years before its original ‘five-year mission’ was complete, while attempts to revive the show on TV had failed and Star Trek: The Motion Picture had missed the mark somewhat trying to ape 2001 A Space Odyssey but landing in a world newly taken over by the mega-blockbuster that was Star Wars.

So, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn faced some bigger challenges than one might expect; first of all it was relegated to a lower budget, then followed issues with the original TV series cast, at least two of whom were disillusioned with the whole franchise and then there was the fact that the founding father of Trek, Gene Roddenberry, was all but removed from the production.

It’s no secret that despite all this the The Wrath of Khan went on to become arguably the most well-regarded of all the Star Trek movies, to the extent that the ‘second’ of the new run of films (Star Trek Into Darkness) all but replicates it, with far less success.

I’ve seen the film many times but this viewing was a little different as I was watching the recently released director’s cut which adds in new elements from Nicholas Meyer’s original vision for the movie, though, for a film made in many ways by committee and as part of a franchise, a director’s cut is a slightly odd idea.

Ricardo Montalban as Khan

Montalban as Khan

The over arching story and style remain unchanged of course, and its in this that the film really triumphs. While all the actors seem to be delivering their best – even William Shatner’s ‘unique’ delivery style is played in such a way that it feels true, while Leonard Nimoy continues to prove why he became the go-to face of the franchise in more recent years.

It is Ricardo Montalban though who is the highlight. Despite being best known now as a TV actor his performance comes with a gravitas that gives it a Shakespearean flair. This is backed up by the script that draws on classic themes, to the extent of directly lifting lines from Moby Dick. This all sounds like it could be quite ridiculous I admit, but something about Montalban’s performance is pitch perfect and plays off Shatner excellently.

William Shatner as Admiral James T. Kirk

Shatner as Admiral Kirk

As a whole the film focusses on the main trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy well, far more than The Motion Picture, and this is where it’s story comes to life. While Khan is an excellent catalyst it is this trio, particularly Kirk and Spock, where a lot of the real emotional drama lies and there’s good reason why so much of their interaction here is so memorable with a few pieces having entered the general public consciousness more than anything else from the ongoing Trek canon.

Having been made on a comparative shoestring in the early 1980s there are a few moments where the special effects have dated but, for the most part, they stack up well. Having been created by ILM between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi this isn’t too surprising but is good to see none the less and the use of detailed models clearly helps.

Kirk and Spock

Kirk and Spock (Nimoy)

The additions from the director’s cut really serve to add a bit more depth and texture to a few of the ideas that crop up in the drama. These come in the form of old age and death most specifically and, to be honest, the additions are a little heavy-handed but do emphasise the point the director wanted to make, though they are far from essential and the ending, added on originally against the director’s wishes, remains intact.

Beyond that the film remains a stand out, not just as a Star Trek movie but in general, as it romps along like a fast paced adventure, but includes enough of the classic tropes of Trek to keep it clearly part of the same universe and style. While future films in the series may have come close to this combination none have yet surpassed it and I’d be surprised if any ever do manage to capture just what The Wrath of Khan brings to the screen.

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High-Rise by JG Ballard

High-Rise by JG BallardBy reputation, and having seen David Cronenberg’s interpretation of Crash many years ago, the work of JG Ballard had always hovered around the edges of my cultural consciousness.

It wasn’t until seeing Ben Wheatley’s cinematic adaptation of High-Rise though that my interest was really piqued so I picked up a copy of the source novel and delved into a world only hinted at in Wheatley’s rather fine film.

Charting the story of three residents of the titular high-rise apartment block over the course of three months the opening sentence, concerning recent arrival Dr Laing tucking into the leg of a dog cooked on a primitive fire on his balcony, hints at what’s to come before we go back to see what led to this apparently unusual happening.

The three residents; Laing, representing the middle floors of the tower, Wilder, from the lower floors and Royal, architect and owner of the penthouse apartment, not only represent elements of traditional British societal class but also stand for sides of a more abstract personality embodied within and by the tower block.

The literal story charts the decline of life in the high-rise from wild parties to inter-floor arguments to a kind of tribal warfare climaxing in a total breakdown of the norms of society in particularly brutal fashion.

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

Here Ballard treads a line of explicitness in particularly impressive fashion. What we ‘see’ through the eyes of the three leads is certainly horrific, yet more is merely suggested building an astonishing picture of decline both externally and internally for the characters and those they encounter with virtually no taboo left un-suggested.

What adds to all this is how, for much of the novel, we are never quite sure if what we are told is actually happening or if it is some kind of mass delusion or even merely the delusion of just Laing, Wilder and Royal.

The fourth main character in the novel is the high-rise itself. Depicted by Ballard as a decaying beast with whims and moods as infrequent as those of its residents, it has the feel of a monster exerting some kind of hypnotic effect on those within while, in a vaguely symbiotic manner, being effected by them in return. Though we are left unsure whether it was the high-rise or the residents who are responsible for the process.

High Rise

The High-Rise as seen in the film version

Beyond the literal story there is another level to things as, like all the best sci-fi (and despite the apparently contemporary setting it is definitely science fiction) High-Rise offers a message about the real world through its own twisted mirror.

While its message at the time was, arguably, a forewarning of Thatcherite Britain, it is just as relevant now when looking at the increasingly segregated society we could be heading towards in a ‘Brexit’ world where a horrific post-cultural creation like Donald Trump is in the running to be president of the USA.

In a less specific sense it looks at society as a whole and how, beneath the thin veneer we call civilisation and maintain through a kind unspoken mutual agreement, humans are just as, if not more, territorial and animalistic as any other species.

Royal and Wilder as seen in the film adaptation

Royal and Wilder as seen in the film adaptation

Ballard leaves us with the impression that no matter what we do mankind is destined to repeat this process time and again, stopping just short of suggesting a sense of mutually assured destruction, though such isn’t that big a leap to take following what is presented here.

As a novel then it is a gripping, tense, experience building in brutality, depravity and bleakness before a surprisingly subdued conclusion but as a wider allegory it still speaks volumes even forty years after its original publication and goes beyond even Wheatley’s famed excesses in both content and message.

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High Rise

high rise kaleidoscope posterBefore watching this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel High Rise, all I knew of director Ben Wheatley was, by way of reputation, that he is the kind of filmmaker to not flinch away from things either visually or conceptually. After watching High Rise, I can certainly confirm that holds true.

Set in a near-future mid-1970s the film follows Laing (Tom Hiddleston) upon his arrival in a newly built, state of the art, high-rise apartment block through to an arguably abstract conclusion that is hinted at in the film’s opening scene. In this scene we see a blood stained Hiddleston stalking the corridors of the flat-block and apparently relaxing on his balcony despite the suggested chaos surrounding him.

While I’m not familiar with the book I am, again, aware of Ballard by reputation and his science fiction based explorations of the extremes of human nature and generally negative changes in ongoing human society. Wheatley’s High Rise fits this perfectly and Hiddleston is the eye of this particular storm.

While the film does tell a story it is at times fairly lose with jumps in events occurring with seemingly no rhyme or reason but serving to develop what is its main aspect, an atmosphere of sheer unease that pervades everything.

Tom Hiddleston

Tom Hiddleston

At first things seem relatively naturalistic as we meet Laing and various of his neighbours from the upper-middle class Charlotte (Sienna Miller), to the more working class Wilder (Luke Evans) and his family to the tower’s architect, Royal, (Jeremy Irons) who suitably lives in the penthouse with his distant wife and a horse.

This class divide is something that runs through the whole film and, while it clearly comes from a place reflecting its original 1970s setting, it still rings true now, especially as it looks at how the supposed upper classes use those ‘beneath’ them to distract from what they are doing and how decadent and corrupt they are. That is to simplify things a bit, but Wheatley paints a condensed picture of this real world dynamic excellently.

The way the uneasy atmosphere develops pulls in all aspects of the film from the script and performance to music, design and editing reminding me in many ways of how Stanley Kubrick would use the film as a whole giving the sense that everything that we experience is intentionally there and not left to chance.

Luke Evans

Luke Evans

Particularly impressive here is the soundtrack that switches from various covers of ABBA (including an amazing version of SOS from Portishead) to deep soundscapes that do a great job of unsettling the viewer as the film escalates.

Along with Hiddleston’s Laing, Evan’s Wilder is a cornerstone of the film and gives a performance that starts out like something from a 70s cop show and grows into something brutally visceral, acting as something of a counterpoint to Laing.

Aside from the bigger names High Rise features a host of recognizable performers some of whom stand out by being almost a part of the unsettling atmosphere as much as they are characters in their own right. In particular Reece Shearsmith’s sadistic dentist Steele (like Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors but with a serious bureaucratic coldness) and Louis Suc as Charlotte’s son Toby who appears to have more of an idea of what’s going on than anyone else.

High Rise

The High Rise

As its goes on it becomes clear that High Rise is speaking in abstract terms as well as naturalistic ones and led to me questioning the source of the mania developing amongst the tower block’s inhabitants.

Like all the best unsettling films this is never wholly explained but various things are hinted at that left me wondering not just what the source would be but what that means in a wider sense away from the movie.

In the end High Rise is a lesson in just how to deliver an uncompromising vision in film in the most complete way I’ve seen in quite some time. It is at once brutal, visceral, disturbing and thought-provoking and has proved to me what everyone else seems to already know, that Wheatley (and his filmmaking partner Amy Jump) are possibly the best all round filmmakers working in Britain today.

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