Film Review: High-Rise

Apartment Living Falls Apart In Energetic Adaptation Of Cult Classic

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Things are looking up for Tom Hiddleston. Or are they going down?
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lnfamous British sci-fi author J.G. Ballard didn’t write science fiction so much as altered reality imaginings. Though his work remains popular, most of his highly experimental novels have long fallen under the category of unfilmable. Ballard’s bleak, postmoderist dystopias don’t surrender easily to conventional Hollywood filmmaking techniques. Aside from a few art school short films, the general population has been exposed to Steven Spielberg’s 1987 vision of Ballard’s conventionally autobiographical book Empire of the Sun and David Cronenberg’s generally icky 1996 adaptation of the sex-and-twisted-metal fetish flick Crash. Now indie British auteur Ben Wheatley tries his hand at tackling Ballard’s eros- and thanatos-filled urban nightmare High-Rise. The result is a libertine Lord of the Flies for adults that delivers a good, old-fashioned shock to the senses.

Wheatley was the director of the intriguing indie horror films
Kill List and Sightseers and most recently helmed the hallucinatory historical head trip A Field in England. His direction on High-Rise is both transgressive and cheeky, thanks in part to a script lucidly limned by screenwriter Amy Jump, who gave life to Wheatley’s previous outings. The film sticks closely to Ballard’s original narrative, while providing plenty of visual style and ironic flourish.

Tom Hiddleston (Loki himself from Marvel’s Thor and Avengers movies) heads the cast as Dr. Laing, a medical school lecturer and newly eligible bachelor who moves into a depressingly modernist housing block on the outskirts of London. It’s one of those brutalist concrete utopias that cropped up throughout England and Eastern Europe in the 1960s. Despite the fact that the place has the most modern of built-in amenities—a supermarket, a school, a pool and a lot of high-speed elevators— the film’s opening sequence grimly informs us that it will all descend into a post-apocalyptic hellscape in something like three months. This should be fun.

“Fashionably detached” Dr. Laing moves into more or less the exact middle of the high-rise, placing him on the border line between the high-class “upper” floors and the working-class “lower” floors. While trying to avoid the building’s already segmented social structure, he’s derided as both a “social climber” and a “cheap bastard.” Despite his introverted nature, Laing gets to know several of his neighbors, including a very pregnant housewife (Elisabeth Moss from “Mad Men”), a testosterone-addled documentary filmmaker (Luke Evans from
Fast & Furious 6), a pipe-smoking snob (James Purefoy, fresh off IFC’s “Hap & Leonard”) and an oversexed single mother (Sienna Miller, last showcased in Foxcatcher).

Laing also crosses paths with “The Architect.” The appropriately named Anthony Royal (the distractedly aristocratic Jeremy Irons) is the engineer of this particular building, which he high-mindedly views as a “crucible of change.” Ensconced in the building’s impossibly well-appointed penthouse, Royal lords over the structure, vainly imagining it to be a futuristic vanguard of social engineering. Unfortunately, a class war is already brewing inside the off-kilter concrete tower. Shortly after Laing moves in, power and water outages being to affect the building. (“Teething pains,” assures Royal.) These deprivations are quickly blamed on the “lowers,” who are clearly sapping the building’s resources (at least according to the ritzy “uppers”). Before long, all semblance of social order is stripped away. The building suffers from full-fledged blackouts, there are riots in the supermarket, the residents descend into drug- and sex-filled orgies, and some folks start swan-diving off balconies in suicidal fits.

Ballard’s speculative look at economic tribalism is a bleak one, but Wheatley and Jump have tweaked the narrative into blackly comic territory. Not to be outdone by the debauchery of the lower floors, the aristocratic uppers stage their own end-of-the-world bacchanal, ticking off a list of supplies to be cannibalized from neighbors: “liquor, drugs, canapés.” Rome is burning and everybody’s looking for a fiddle.

It takes next to no imagination to view Ballard’s apocalyptic apartment complex as a microcosm of modern society, with the effluvia of the 1 percenters trickling down onto the heads an increasingly angry 99 percent. Sure, it’s an allegory as obvious today as when Ballard penned it back in 1975. But that doesn’t make it any less morbidly entertaining.

There’s a wicked, crazed energy on display in
High-Rise. The cast is gung-ho as all get-out. As subdued as Hiddleston’s character is forced to be, he’s nicely surrounded by madmen like Evans’ angry revolutionary and Purefoy’s sleazy snob. Despite its ugly outlook, the film is gorgeously shot. Wheatley steeps himself and his film in Ballard’s era, perfectly recreating the depressive style of the 1970s—from the burnt-orange color scheme to the white shag carpeting to what could be the creepiest-ever cover of ABBA’s “S.O.S.” By the end, the narrative has broken down almost as badly as the social order. But even that seems perfectly fitting. If you’re one of those cynical sorts, endlessly amused by watching civilization fall down around us, then this gleefully hedonistic one-bedroom in hell is ready and waiting for you to move in.

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