In 1975, experimental sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard published the novel High-Rise, a darkly comical class warfare allegory in which a tower block’s problems with power failures, nocturnal disturbances, and petty neighbor disputes escalate into all-out tribal warfare. With Britain in the middle of an economic slump and Margaret Thatcher only four years away from Downing Street, the novel felt timely and important, so it’s no surprise that attempts to adapt it to the big screen started almost as soon as it was in bookstores. There as well, the climate was favorable: As an antidote to the popular sitcom spin-offs and notoriously terrible sex comedies that plagued ‘70s British cinema, mavericks like Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, and Stanley Kubrick were riding a wave of unrestrained psychedelic nuttiness that birthed such classics as Tommy, Performance, A Clockwork Orange, and Zardoz. Hey, I said they were classics; I didn’t say they were all good.
Paul Mayersberg was the first screenwriter to take a stab at adapting Ballard’s book, with Nicolas Roeg set to direct. Given their previous success at adapting Walter Tevis’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, this looked like a match made in heaven. But the project never took off, and Roeg went on to make Bad Timing instead. The two would eventually re-team for Eureka, but they never tried to adapt High-Rise again.
In the early 2000s, Splice director Vincenzo Natali teamed up with screenwriter Richard Stanley for a second attempt, but they too eventually gave up. By now, you can probably guess why: Ballard’s prose is excruciatingly difficult to translate to a visual medium. He doesn’t just create bizarre imagery, he imbues it with a sense of meaning and history that’s almost impossible to convey simultaneously. If visionaries like Roeg and Natali couldn’t keep that essence intact, who could?
Enter Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, the respective director and writer of indie critical darlings Kill List, Sightseers, and A Field in England. In the vein of fellow British movie geeks Neil Marshall and Edgar Wright, Wheatley and Jump have proven themselves to be highly literate artists with a knack for taking their audience on demented trips that confound expectations at every turn. These are people who can transition from kitchen-sink domestic drama to “one last job” hitman thriller before sliding seamlessly into Wicker Man-esque occult horror—and that’s just Kill List!
With such creative minds at the helm, High-Rise seemed to be in good hands. After lingering for over thirty years in pre-production limbo, the project was finally completed in 2015 and shown at various film festivals across the world. Now that it’s been officially released to the general public, let’s find out if it was worth the wait.
The film opens at the story’s conclusion, with the titular building in shambles and most surviving residents gone. None of this seems to faze our protagonist, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), whom we see taking a dog for a walk in the ruins before returning to his balcony to eat it, with the voiceover narration (also provided by Hiddleston) indicating that he’s finally acclimated himself to the high-rise life. As he reflects on the events that led up to this new status quo, a title card flashes us back to three months ago.
Shortly after moving into his new apartment, Laing is greeted while sunbathing naked (no full-frontal, and barely any rear view. Sorry, Hiddlestoners!) by sexy single mum Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) and rakish TV documentary filmmaker Richard Wilder (Luke Evans, who turns in by far the movie’s best performance). After rejecting Wilder’s advances, Charlotte invites Laing to a neighbor’s party, where he meets Wilder’s pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and starts a sexual relationship with Charlotte. At work, Laing introduces his three apprentices to physiology by peeling a dead man’s face off, causing one of them, snooty upper-class resident Munrow (Augustus Prew), to collapse on the floor.
Later, a date with Charlotte at the building’s swimming pool is interrupted when an intimidating goon “invites” Laing to meet the building’s architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons, all dressed in white and limping like an impotent god), who lives at the very top of the building on a lavish gardened terrace with his bored wife Ann (Keeley Hawes). After the two men bond over games of squash, Royal invites Laing to an 18th Century-themed fancy-dress party organized by his wife. Laing does so, only to be forcibly thrown out after being publicly humiliated by Munrow and vain soap actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory). The next day, Laing gets his revenge by tricking Munrow into thinking that his fainting spell caused him brain damage.
Meanwhile, residents and workers of the lower levels start complaining of power failures, for which they blame the upper levels’ incessant partying. Leading the chorus of disapproval is Richard Wilder, who takes things to the next level by hijacking a birthday party and leading an army of kids to spoil a rich people’s costumed ball at the swimming pool. Taking advantage of the general chaos, he further cements his point by deliberately killing Jane Sheridan’s dog and making it look like it drowned.
Tensions rise even higher later in the evening, after Munrow gets drunk at a party and falls off a balcony to his death. Despite a multitude of eyewitnesses, police and ambulances are nowhere to be seen.
After yet another power failure, the entire building is plunged into darkness, leading lower and middle-level residents to throw wild parties of their own. Feeling threatened, Royal’s wife and goons retaliate by raiding the supermarket and turning their place into an orgy house, thereby setting the context for Jane Sheridan to utter what is indisputably the film’s best line: “Which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse?” Soon enough, the entire building degenerates into all-out riots, pillaging, and looting, as residents fight over food, energy, and who can throw the best party.
Things go from bad to worse when Wilder discovers Charlotte’s son to be the product of a past affair with Royal, and reacts by raping her (off-screen), and making her his personal slave. In an attempt to re-establish control, Royal’s goons decide to have Wilder lobotomized and order Laing (who in the meantime has been sleeping with Wilder’s neglected wife) to perform the operation. After talking with him under the pretense of a “psychological evaluation”, Laing refuses, and is almost executed by Royal’s goons as a result, saved only by their boss’s reminder that “he owes me a game of squash!” After infiltrating the terrace, Wilder confronts Royal and shoots him dead, before being himself stabbed to death by almost every major female character.
Despite largely positive reviews, reception of High-Rise has been decidedly polarized—I counted at least three walkouts in my screening—and it’s easy to see why. As you can probably tell from the summary, there is a lot going on in it. Plot threads accumulate very quickly, leaving little time for the viewer to comfortably process information. Every now and then, we get brief windows into the thoughts and feelings that characters conceal from each other, but these are only brief respites in the narrative’s almost dream-like race to self-destruction.
As is customary with Wheatley and Jump, the story flashes from past to present to fantasy to future in a manner reflective of their protagonists’ frenzied, often solipsistic state of mind. We therefore get more of a general impression of characters and events than we do a definitively contextualized picture. The effect can be disorienting (hence the aforementioned walkouts), but if you resist the urge to hunt for any immediate deeper meaning and allow yourself to drift in the story’s hallucinogenic pace, you may enjoy the delirious, apocalyptic vision of destruction and disinhibition it procures.
Not that the film is devoid of any substance; it’s just that most of it is conveyed through stylistic choices rather than the characters’ actions or dialogue. Take, for instance, the colors, sets, and costume design: By replicating ‘70s clothes, cars, music, and hairstyles, the film takes the zeitgeist of the culture during which the book was written and transposes it to an insular setting that feels atemporal; because we see very little of the world outside the building lot, we can’t connect it to any past or present reality we may be familiar with. As such, the film can be considered a form of dystopic science-fiction, insofar as it takes place in a stylized reality that mimics many aspects of our past and present world while frontally dealing with topics (urbanization, income inequality, coexistence of different social classes within the same habitat) that affect us even more today than they did then.
This also colors the story’s rather troubled gender politics. True to one of post-apocalyptic narratives’ more dubious traditions, women are commodified, enslaved, kidnapped, abused, domesticated, and fought over. But unlike most occurrences of this trope, the pre-existing power relations that such scenarios take for granted are actually addressed, in the form of little touches such as a close-up of a neighbor’s hand on Wilder’s teenage daughter’s shoulder during a party, or the “copy of the Financial Times” that a lower-level resident claims was stuffed in her daughter’s mouth by an upper-level pervert during a power outage. It’s hard not to make a connection with the much-discussed ‘70s BBC culture that allowed predators like Jimmy Savile to harass, grope, and assault women and children without suffering any consequences. It’s fitting then that the film’s foremost sexual predator, Wilder—whose rape and enslavement of Charlotte directly links sexual entitlement with class envy—should work in television.
While far more ambitious than anything Wheatley and Jump have ever made before, High-Rise shares much of their previous films’ strengths and weaknesses: there’s a lot of inventiveness and skill on display, but their shock-and-awe approach to storytelling sometimes drowns out the very ideas and feelings they want to shock you with. You come out shaken and entertained, but the buzz wears off after a while, replaced by a sense of tempered satisfaction.
For better or worse, High-Rise is bound to join Snowpiercer, Dark City, and Equilibrium in the coveted club of allegorical sci-fi cult classics: works of visionary genius for fans, empty style for others. Me? I’m glad I saw it. But there’s no escaping the feeling that I just watched a couple of very gifted athletes aim for gold and settle for silver.