Only a scant few directors have taken on the challenge of adapting the iconoclastic work of sci-fi (is it even apt to call him that?) author J.G. Ballard. Most famously Steven Spielberg with the mostly (unfairly) forgotten Empire of the Sun, and perhaps his most obvious cinematic counterpart David Cronenberg with 1996’s controversial Crash. Now, British director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers) adds his name to the mix with a take on Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise, an adaptation of which has been in the pipeline for decades now.
Wheatley and his regular screenwriter (and wife) Amy Jump have an interesting decision to make in producing a modern adaptation of High-Rise; the book appeared to be set in a seventies’ near future that, while not specified, can now essentially be thought to be the past. Rather than putting the movie in the present, it instead takes place in an industrial “retro-future”, featuring no obvious technological advances we know today, yet nothing to place it in the eighties or nineties either, and indeed some fashion choices that suggest it may still be the decade of its writing. This serves to give the film quite an otherworldly mood, aided by its non-specific (if generically British location) that proves quite fitting.
Wheatley brings us in with a starling glimpse of the debauchery to come, before flashing back to three months earlier. Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a 25th floor flat in the newly opened skyscraper. It’s an impressive structure, with many facilities built right into it. As he gets to know his co-inhabitants, it becomes clearer that a class structure of sorts has formed within the building, with the wealthiest tenants living near the top looking down, both figuratively and literally on those below.
Hiddleston seems perfectly cast as the smooth yet remote Laing, and there are a significant number of other recognizable actors populating the building, including Sienna Miller and Elizabeth Moss. The stand-out turn comes from Luke Evans though, as a hot-headed resident of one of the lowest floors who decides to rebel against the assumed social order. Laing himself is always somewhere in between, he manages to meet with the building’s architect (Jeremy Irons) who inhabits the very top, but is also humiliated by the wealthier residents at a party.
The film excellently establishes a mood and tone that is both intriguing and unsettling. Wheatley makes the most of his likely modest budget to create a world inside the building that feels expansive yet isolated. In fact, as it progresses the few moments which take place outside it seem more jarring. No-one is actually confined to the tower, we occasionally see people leave and return, leaving the actions of many toward the latter half of the film more confounding.
As fascinating as the film’s setting and imagery may be, it unfortunately does begin to run into trouble. After the initial breakdown of society inside the high-rise the film starts floundering, with no apparent direction to go in, it drags and feels a little repetitive. The story’s attempts to shock continue long after they have ceased being particularly effective. We know how the film will close (how it began) and after a while I found myself just wondering when we were going to get back to it. I will say this though, amidst the films otherwise least interesting section lies a montage set to an alluring cover of ABBA’s SOS by Portishead that immediately sucks you right back in.
Despite these trappings, I would still call High-Rise overall a mostly successful film. Wheatley has made a valiant attempt to translate Ballard to the screen without diluting or compromising him, and has essentially managed to do so. It’s a stylish dystopian vision, laced with startling imagery and elements of still-relevant satire, even if it’s undoubtedly top-heavy.