“My building has every convenience. It’s gonna make life easy for me.” –Talking Heads, “Don’t Worry About the Government”
“Movin’ on up, to the top, to a deluxe apartment in the sky.” –Ja’net Dubois, “Movin’ on Up (Theme from ‘The Jeffersons’)”
The above examples demonstrate that J.G. Ballard’s novel “High-Rise” wasn’t the only 1970s pop-cultural critique of urban living—just one of the most dystopian. In that decade, the utopian dream of planned housing developments soured into resentment and alienation, and Ballard was, as usual, at the forefront in recognizing the ways modernity and technology could really mess with people.
“High-Rise” has now, after a thirty-year effort by producer Jeremy Thomas, been made into a film, one that captures Ballard’s anxieties but fails to update them, and therefore ends up feeling almost too faithful to the book. The setting remains, vaguely, the 1970s, and Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) has just moved into the 25th floor of a 50-floor residential monolith. Laing is, as the few scenes set outside the building show, a medical instructor specializing in the brain, and one can’t help but wonder if his name is a reference to the radical 1960s psychiatrist R.D. Laing.
In any case, Laing soon becomes acquainted with his neighbors, including the temptress who lives just upstairs (Sienna Miller); the documentary filmmaker (Luke Evans) who lives on one of the lower, working-class floors with his very pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss); and the building’s architect (Jeremy Irons), who of course occupies the penthouse. The vertical organization of class divisions is reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” which did the same thing on an enormous post-apocalyptic train.
Since the film opens with a bedraggled (or at least as bedraggled as Hiddleston can manage) Laing scrounging in the ruined shell of his apartment and cooking rotisserie dog leg, there’s little doubt where this hermetically sealed powder-keg of class resentment is headed. Bacchanalian orgies lead to an invasion of the swimming pool by the unwashed masses, which leads to all-out warfare between floors. The complex has its own grocery store, but even when it’s shelves have been emptied, it never occurs to any of the residents to either leave or call for help.
The sleek modern décor counterpoised against deviant behavior recalls David Cronenberg (who directed an even more disturbing Ballard adaptation, “Crash,” twenty years ago), especially with Irons lurking around the edges of the story. The surreal inability of the characters to acknowledge their predicament recalls Luis Bunuel’s classic satire of bourgeois cluelessness, 1962’s “The Exterminating Angel.” This over-reliance on previous films is surprising considering the director of “High-Rise” is Ben Wheatley, a British filmmaker whose previous features have been largely sui generis.
Wheatley’s work, especially his second feature, “Kill List,” and his most recent, “A Field of England,” have treated traditional narrative structure as, at most, just one tool in his bag. In “High-Rise,” too, he opts for occasional montage sequences that serve more to disorient and disturb that to clarify what’s actually going on. That, and the (intentional?) similarity in appearance of several minor characters, make the whole experience more confusing than necessary, more a study in mere anarchy than revolution.
There are several visually arresting moments in “High-Rise”—a slow-motion plummeting suicide, a rich-folks soiree in 18th-century aristocratic dress, a vast rooftop terrace complete with white horse. But its ostensibly wicked humor doesn’t feel especially relevant. Maybe setting the thing in a newly constructed hipster haven like the ones currently sprouting throughout Portland, with displaced residents crammed into the ground floors until the inevitable revolt, would have given it a bit more edge.