Release Date: 18 March 2016
Running Time: 119 min
Director: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss
With half the world’s wealth owned by one percent of the population and the western world becoming increasingly urbanised and dependent on technology, the work of English science fiction writer JG Ballard has never seemed so prescient. First published in 1975, his novel High-Rise examines societal breakdown within an insular community housed in a huge concrete tower block. As the gap between rich and poor grows ever more pronounced and global politics descends into a nightmare of name-calling and one-upmanship, Ben Wheatley’s furious howl of an adaptation arrives bang on time.
When young doctor Robert Laing moves into an apartment in a newly constructed, ultra-modern tower block he finds an almost entirely self-contained living space complete with its own shops, schools and leisure activities. Divided up by traditional class distinctions the poor tenants live in the shadows on the lower floors while the super-rich swan about in mansions in the clouds. Before too long simmering tensions erupt into violence and society starts to break down as things become like Lord of the Flies in concrete and steel.
English director Ben Wheatley has established himself as a smart, stylish director with micro-budgeted films like the black comedy Sightseers and psychedelic horror film A Field in England. Given a more substantial amount of cash to play with Wheatley has been afforded a bigger canvas to work on and produced a film that is both thrillingly cinematic and deliciously subversive. Working from a script by partner Amy Jump that’s high in atmosphere and low in plot, Wheatley pulls out all the stops, fashioning a visually dense picture that communicates its themes through imagery and editing. Rather than telling us that the community is rotten just beneath its surface, he pans across the shelves of the supermarkets, from the ripe fruit at the front to the increasingly mouldy stuff that lies untouched just behind it. It’s confident, concise storytelling that fits Ballard’s icily detached prose perfectly.
As we watch society crumble in the tower – starting with petty rows and boisterous parties and ending with all manner of madness and depravity – it seems a little extreme. Yet it’s this commitment to batshit insanity that gives High-Rise any sense of moral authority or political weight. The feral ruthlessness seen in the tower is the embodiment of the gross injustices of capitalism and a display of humanity’s innately savage nature. It may seem far-fetched, but there’s a horrifying truthfulness to it too.