There’s something about the technology-driven dystopias of JG Ballard that appeal to a certain breed of director.
Steven Spielberg’s mainstream adaptation of Empire of the Sun is ironically something of an oddity of an oeuvre encapsulated by the steely paraphilia of David Cronenberg’s Crash. It’s now the turn of British director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers) to explore the psycho-sexual concrete-and-steel construction that is High-Rise.
The film takes place almost entirely within a luxury apartment block — an ominous Brutalist structure, half Aztec pyramid, half toppled Jenga tower. New resident Dr. Robert Laing (a lean, customarily photogenic Tom Hiddleston) moves in and quickly finds himself uncomfortably slotted into place.
His immediate neighbors include passionate Welsh brute Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and the long-suffering, continually pregnant Helen (Elizabeth Moss). One floor above is the slinky Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and her speccy son and, right at the very top, the architect, the strait-laced, cane-wielding Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his flame-tressed, over-privileged lover, Ann (Keeley Hawes).
No sooner has Royal broken protocol by inviting Laing for a game of squash than the lights start failing all over the building.
High-Rise is a portent of what happens when a high-tech, hierarchical society begins to fall apart. As the rubbish bags begin to pile up and the food begins to run out, the lower floors look upwards for justice while the ruling classes — which include James Purefoy as pipe-smoking, savagely snobbish aristo-rouser Pangbourne — begin to descend on raiding expeditions, determined to keep the party going at any cost.
Meanwhile, the increasingly secluded Laing finds himself stuck as an involuntary intermediary.
While those on the bottom-most levels keep going as best they can, flooding in and out of the ground floor lobby on daily basis, the others both embrace and challenge Royal’s vision of the building as a “crucible for change”.
Laurie Rose’s clean, almost disco cinematography provides a perverse counterpoint to the grot to which the inhabitants quickly become accustomed. They’re all so self-interested, suffering from mania, narcissism, and power failure, that they can withstand almost any hardship. Thatcher would be proud.
Cross-cutting between marauding children’s parties and endlessly mirrored elevators, High-Rise sets up a kaleidoscopic commentary on class and technology, order and chaos, that never quite coalesces into a statement. Unlike Wheatley’s A Field in England, where the mystical setting semi-justified the more associative handling of the subject matter, the magic doesn’t hold quite as well here in an urban environment.
The leitmotif of Abba’s SOS — first heard as an orchestral piece during a Georgian costume ball then a straight-up cover by Portishead — suggest the failure of human connection is responsible for the chaos, but there are too many other factors at play for this to be truly convincing.
Sex, drugs, pillaging, and wall paint make for a heady brew, but by the time you sober up you may wonder quite what it was all about.
High-Rise is now available on DVD and BluRay from StudioCanal. Extras include a commentary with Tom Hiddleston, Ben Wheatley, and Jeremy Thomas, plus cast & crew interviews and a special JG Ballard featurette. It’s available for purchase here.