Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of that old cynic J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel, may retain its heightened period setting – the brutalism (a metaphor the story literalises with violent social breakdown) and the preoccupations; sociology, social mobility, sexual liberation – but for all that it’s a timely movie, released when new developments are once again dominating the urban cityscape and aspirant homeowners find themselves sucked into new communities that promise modern living but more often than not simply rebrand, repackage and amplify old social problems.
The losers, as in Ballard’s story, remain those in search of harmonious and affordable homes for themselves and their families. The winners, as in Wheatley’s movie, at least initially (for the mercenary imperative and short-sightedness go hand in hand) are the profiteers – the architects, the builders. In fact, there’s something gloriously satisfying about watching Jeremy Iron’s Royal, whose high-rise penthouse includes greenery denied to the people below, and even country imports like a horse, forced to eat pets and sit surrounded by his own filth as life in his self-monument degenerates. If reality trumped movies, the idiots responsible for the characterless, overpriced units that now pass for homes, segregated accorded to status, like here, would be forced to live amongst those they’d turned into guinea pigs.
High-Rise is a strange film indeed, then – both consciously old fashioned (the decision not to update the setting making the social stratification and architectural ugliness that more stark and unsettling), and curiously relevant. It’s a monument to the fallacy that you can remodel human nature using new building materials in robotically designed configurations. The block that encompasses Doctors, media personalities, maids and lower-middle class families with young children, both conditions the psyche of those therein and in time reflects it. Soon both environment and resident are synonymous. “I’m talking to the building” says Tom Hiddleston, long after social order’s broken down, reflecting that it’s ceased to be just a shell and has started to incubate thoughts, feelings and desires. Your home, for better or worse, conditions you.
You can read the surrealism and depravity that result in Wheatley’s urban dystopia as anti-modern, or culturally conservative (given the disaster precipitated by literally stacking one class on top of another), or the left’s critique of Thatcher’s erosion of traditional communities in favour of a remodeled society, designed to cultivate self-interest – indeed the former Prime Minister has an aural cameo at the close; the movie’s sole nod to realism; but there’s no denying the intoxicating power of the breakdown. It’s a film that stays with you, not least because the grotesquery it offers plays in the shadow of the new communities being erected in front of your very eyes.