Faulty Tower

Ben Wheatley, High-Rise, 2016, color, sound, 119 minutes. Jane (Sienna Guillory).

AS REAL ESTATE BECOMES A LIVING NIGHTMARE in cities like London, New York, and San Francisco, it seems a good time to revisit novelist J. G. Ballard’s fictional nightmare of real estate, High-Rise, recently made into a film by British director Ben Wheatley. A pitch-black social satire typical of its author, the 1975 source novel concerns a state-of-the-art, high-tech apartment building—all mod cons and then some—whose residents quickly slide into violent and sexual depravity, losing touch with the outside world, as its conveniences begin to malfunction.

Ballard was interested in situations where the thin veneer of “civilization” is stripped away from human relations, either by technological developments or natural disasters, revealing the ignoble savage within. As in his unclassifiable, technopornographic 1973 novel Crash, in which “the deviant technology of the car-crash provided the sanction for any perverse act,” the rigorously automated citadel of the high-rise, which “[b]y its very efficiency…took over the task of maintaining the social structure,” left its residents “free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses.” The high-rise was, as one of Ballard’s characters reflects, “a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”

Like many literary authors who flirt with science fiction, Ballard was regarded as a prophet of dystopia, but it is not always acknowledged how prophetic he really was. Contemporary readers of High-Rise will come upon this passage, as accurate a description of ardent social-media users you’re likely to find in a mid-’70s text: “A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality…who felt…no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organizations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of late-twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.” Pressing the point, one of the characters in the film delivers a line that doesn’t appear in the book: “We’re all bio-robots now. None of us can live without the equipment we surround ourselves with—cameras, cars, televisions, phones.”

Superficially, High-Rise can be seen as an adult version of William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies (made into a film in 1963), but Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) are also cornerstones of its architecture. Taking cues from the Spanish surrealist, Ballard and Wheatley depict the decadence and barbarism of the upper classes as they insulate themselves from the lower-floor residents and “what’s going on at street level,” as one penthouse partygoer contemptuously puts it in the film. There are also echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in the epic journey a lower-floor resident, coded as coarse and working class, makes to the very top of the high-rise to confront its architect and owner.

High-Rise is Wheatley’s fifth feature, and as with most of his films, its screenplay was written by his wife, Amy Jump, who stays fairly close to the novel, even if she occasionally puts certain characters’ thoughts into other characters’ mouths. The team is known for their mordant wit and mild surrealism, their most effective works to date being the truly shocking three-genre mashup Kill List (2011) and the dark Beckettian farce A Field in England (2013), which is set during the English Civil War and manages to be convincingly psychedelic despite being shot in black and white. The set and setting of High-Rise, as well as its tone, suit them well.

Ben Wheatley, High-Rise, 2016, color, sound, 119 minutes. Laing (Tom Hiddleston).

Wheatley lacks the cold, nearly inhuman artiness of Nicolas Roeg, slated to direct the film adaptation in the late ’70s, whose sensibility lies somewhere between Kubrick and Antonioni, but he is equipped and prepared to walk the razor-thin lines between humor and violence, prophecy and satire, realism and science fiction that Ballard traces in his novels. Ballard’s signature clinical distance, literally acquired in medical school and evident in his seemingly amoral descriptions of the increasingly appalling tableaux of the building’s degeneration, is honored by Wheatley in the film, leading to matter-of-fact plot points in my notes like “The morning after being raped by Wilder, Charlotte serves him a half-eaten can of dog food on the terrace.”

As with its budget and promotional push, the cast of High-Rise is a step up for Wheatley, though he still finds minor roles for some of his recurring actors. Of the stars, Tom Hiddleston brings his slightly effete, thin-lipped reserve to the role of Robert Laing, a medical school professor whose name is tellingly close to that of R. D. Laing, the unorthodox psychiatrist who theorized that psychotic episodes were legitimate human expressions and might be way stations to more enlightened states of being. Sienna Miller, here a dead ringer for Elizabeth Hurley in the Austin Powers cycle, plays Charlotte Melville, a vampy widow with a young son of mysterious provenance, who sleeps with Laing and other male residents of the building. Reprising his George Sanders–as–zombie role from Margin Call (2011), as a member of the urbane, moneyed undead who only inhabit stratospheric penthouse suites, Jeremy Irons is the building’s architect and “father,” Anthony Royal, whose name—like Laing and Richard Wilder, the story’s avenging id—is a bit too on the nose.

The prominent class-warfare theme of the novel would have made less sense to Americans in the ’70s. It is far more apposite today in a country that, despite its tediously ballyhooed Horatio Alger myth, is now commensurate with the UK in terms of (lack of) social mobility. US audiences will recognize in Irons’s unchecked arrogance and casual sociopathy the demeanor and attitudes of disgraced Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld, the model for the CEO in Margin Call. Toward the end of High-Rise, as the camera scans the concrete desert of the larger development where the building sits, Wheatley cuts in audio of a Margaret Thatcher speech, presumably from her late-’70s rise: “There is only one economic system in this world, and it is capitalism. Where there is state capitalism, there will never be political freedom.” The irony here is that the “freedom” so often lauded by Objectivist sock puppets like Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan is truly realized in Ballard and Wheatley’s high-rise, a model of totally unregulated private capitalism where the law of the jungle prevails. Ayn Rand, to say nothing of Thatcher, would be proud. Perceptive viewers will detect the underlying message of the film, which couldn’t be more timely: Beware wealthy, self-satisfied men bearing skyscrapers; they will usher in a social system where only the richest and most brutal will survive. It’s gonna be yuge.

High-Rise opens in select theaters on Friday, May 13.