A self-contained, ultra-modern apartment building slowly descends into complete anarchy in director Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an impressive, impenetrable, and utterly bonkers adaptation of author J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name.
Set in a fictional mid-1970s England, Tom Hiddleston stars as Dr. Robert Laing, a charming social climber and new arrival to the building. The high-rise has everything its residents could ever want or need, including a pool, gymnasium, grocery store, and even a television station, but Laing is far more curious to learn about his neighbours than the building’s amenities. The good doctor quickly learns that there is a strict social hierarchy in the apartment complex, with the well-to-do living on the upper floors and the working class folks living on the lower levels. As the building itself “settles,” problems begin to appear – power outages, food shortages, leaks, cramped quarters – and conditions for the residents begin to deteriorate. The building eventually plunges into chaos and finding his place in the pecking order becomes a matter of survival for Laing.
High-Rise is social satire of the highest order. Bleakly comic and ultra-violent, the film shares a pedigree with some of the big screen sci-fi released in the era in which it’s set, films like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Boorman’s Zardoz. For a modern counterpart though, the closest point of comparison would be Joon-ho Bong’s 2013 film Snowpiercer, except in this case our hero begins his fight in the “middle of the train” and merely wishes to find a way to stay on board. Like Snowpiercer, the allegorical underpinnings of High-Rise are a little on the nose at times – Jeremy Irons’ man at the top is named Anthony Royal and Luke Evans’ blue collar brute is named Richard Wilder – but that’s all part of the film’s weird charm. The apartment is a microcosm of British society as it existed in the ’70s (and still does today in many ways), a sociological Petri dish full of haves, have-nots, and have-somes. It’s a grand experiment to demonstrate that it doesn’t take much for the veneer of our society to peel away and have everything come crashing down. That was load-bearing veneer!
Above all, it’s High-Rise‘s head-first dedication to Ballard’s vision that is to be commended here. The faithfulness to the source material is both a benefit and a detriment to the movie, but screenwriter Amy Jump makes the most of the author’s highly descriptive novel. The terrible world he envisioned is there on the screen and the cast inhabits it totally and completely. Hiddleston is particularly good as the disaffected doctor, as is Evans as the scary alpha Wilder, although Elisabeth Moss, consistently one of the most interesting actresses working today, feels a little wasted here.
Let’s make one thing clear: High-Rise is not for everyone. Hell, this supposedly unfilmable story may not be for anyone. The movie doesn’t always work, but when it does it’s bold, batshit crazy filmmaking. In this age of cookie cutter blockbusters, it’s nice to be able to rely on the audacious Mr. Wheatley for that.