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NPR Arts and Life

The Haves And Have-Nots Have At It In 'High-Rise'

Tom Hiddleston in <em>High Rise</em>.
Tom Hiddleston in <em>High Rise</em>.

J.G. Ballard's classic 1975 science-fiction novel High-Rise is a caustic vision of modernity gone awry, witnessing a high-tech utopia of domestic convenience undone by class conflict. Located on the outskirts of London, the building of the title has 40 floors, and its amenities — a grocery store, a swimming pool and gym, high-speed elevators, and even its own primary school — discourage residents from ever leaving the premises. In other words, it's a self-contained vertical society, with the wealthy elites occupying the top floors and the cash-strapped plebeians toward the bottom. As order breaks down, anarchy consumes the building and guerrilla warfare breaks out between parties from different sections.

Like Ballard's preceding novels, Concrete Island and Crash, High-Rise reflects an interest in the convergence of technology and humanity, but from an anthropologist's distance — cold, clinical and exacting in its observations. By contrast, Ben Wheatley's screen adaptation plunges itself into the chaos as if it were a restless tenant, eschewing the remove of Ballard's book for an on-the-ground, bare-knuckle fight. There's barely a moment's pause over two hours to consider the bigger picture: It depicts anarchy by exemplifying it.

The eye at the center of the Category 4 hurricane is Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a handsome bachelor who lives on the 25th floor, squeezed between the hostile classes above and below. After a framing sequence that shows Laing in post-apocalyptic rubble, roasting the leg of a dog on a spit, Wheatley cuts to three months earlier, when Laing first moved into the apartment and could look forward to the benefits of sustained ultramodernity. It isn't long before Laing has a congenial chat with the building's architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who resides in the penthouse suite on the top floor, which is spacious enough to include a small field and a horse.

His relationships elsewhere are murkier. On the floor above, there's the seductive Charlotte (Sienna Miller), who works for Royal and helps give Laing access to one of his parties, where revelers stroll around in powdered wigs and finery while a string quartet plays Abba's "S.O.S." Then all the way down on the second floor, Laing meets the very pregnant Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and her indulgent husband, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a documentary filmmaker who acts as the chief agitator, fueled by a vigorous appetite for liquor and cocaine. When the power goes out, supplies dwindle, and nobody leaves, pre-existing tensions between the haves, the have-somes and the have-nots boil over into violent conflict.

Given the novel's vaunted reputation among sci-fi enthusiasts, Wheatley deserves credit for making the material his own, asserting a strong vision that's contrary to Ballard's tone yet respectful of his ideas. He offers this immense concrete tower as a malevolent organism, infecting humanity through a series of decadent parties that tip into the apocalyptic. High-Rise wears its influences on its sleeve — the grotesque black comedy of A Clockwork Orange, the ambition and hyperaggression of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, the anarchy of Lindsay Anderson's If.... —but at heart, it's a scenario close to Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel, a class statement about revelers who cannot leave a dinner party.

Yet High-Rise is a deeply and relentlessly unpleasant experience, and a borderline incoherent one at that. Wheatley treats essential information as hasty shorthand: He does little to establish the self-sustaining wonders of the building itself, which is more of a character in Ballard's novel than any of its residents. He's equally careless about fleshing out the key relationships, particularly those in relation to Laing, who exists more as a human fulcrum for the battles between the upper and lower floors than a character with any resonant features in his own right. The film is all chaos, no connective tissue.

That may be by design, of course. Wheatley's earlier films, like Kill List and Sightseers, have drifted toward gruesome abstraction, and his last one, A Field in England, staged the English Civil War as a full-on psychedelic freakout. The sustained madness of High-Rise feels like a natural progression in his career, but a flawed articulation of Ballardian themes. It's so consumed with the viscera of class warfare that it loses sight of the bigger picture.

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