Reportedly a passion project for producer Jeremy Thomas since he purchased the film rights back in 1975, J G Ballard’s “High-Rise” finally makes it to the big screen and it’s as if not a single day has passed since Thomas first conceived the film.
In a parallel London of the 1970s, Doctor Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) rents an apartment in a prestigious and futuristic new high-rise development, the brainchild of renowned architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Moving in to the 25th floor, he meets his new neighbours, some from the same floor, some from above and many from the lower floors while enjoying the buildings many amenities. But when resources such as power, heat and light become scarce, the tower quickly descends into tribal anarchy.
There’s nothing particularly subtle in Ballard’s novel’s original metaphorical conceits and this heavy-handedness makes it to the screen almost entirely unmolested. Director Wheatley has masterfully recreated the aesthetic of the British dystopian sci-fi films of the 1970s. The set design, the hair, the costumes, the casually Alex Comfort-esque approach to sex and even the palette and tone of the cinematography are reproduced to such a successful degree that were it not for conspicuously anachronistic current stars such as Hiddleston, you could completely believe this was a ‘lost’ 1970s film restored and shown for the first time today. You literally expect Gareth Hunt to pop up in a cameo at any moment.
There’s a disconnected, slightly disjointed flow to the narrative and many of the important plot developments are told through artful montage or skipped over entirely and merely implied by their effects. It’s impossible to keep track of the timeline in the film, making it entirely possible for the events to have taken place over the course of days, weeks or months. Like its source novel, the film is more taken with its idea than narrative logic and it bears the same provocative and maddeningly unanswered question as the book: when everything goes awry, why do the residents not simply leave the tower?
Long considered unfilmable, “High-Rise” has certainly now been filmed. Whether or not that’s a good thing is harder to judge. The performances are strong – if slightly affected- and the production values are superb but there’s a flaw in the architecture of the movie and it’s the lack of coherent plot. You’ll have to do a lot of thinking and reflecting to fill in the gaps yourself and even decide whether or not it’s a happy ending after all which means the marketing for this one runs the risk of mis-selling it. It suggests it’s a classier version of the block war from “Dredd” but this is no action thriller. It’s a contemplative, archly arty (there’s a literal shot of paint drying) and blackly comic exploration of the class system; a simultaneously fascinating and repellent spectacle that will likely be as divisive as it is sociologically insightful.