I can’t make up my mind about whether or not I like High Rise. Part of me desperately wants to like it. After all, it’s brilliantly acted and stylishly directed. It feels like it ought to be a distinctive piece of dystopian science fiction satire. And yet director Ben Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump’s adaptation of the JG Ballard novel often feels too much like a blunt instrument, albeit an agreeably deranged, utterly bonkers one.
The plot concerns a high rise tower block in the future. Well, a future that happens to be a kind of parallel universe 1970s, where society exists in microcosm inside the high rise tower block of the title. The lower classes occupy the lower floors, and the upper classes occupy the upper floors. For reasons not made clear, a sudden series of crises, including mysterious power failures and never explained food shortages, precipitate a kind of social breakdown whereby activity within the high rise degenerates into a kind of cross between a particularly wild student party and Lord of the Flies with adults instead of children.
At the centre of this mayhem is the protagonist Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), whose half-hearted melancholy pseudo-conformity provides an identification point of sorts for the audience. But then he kind-of goes mad, and to be honest the plot just gets confusing. As for the satire, it’s obvious, not to mention contrived and repetitive. Yet there are flashes of interest in the form of the high rise architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and most notably the repugnant yet compelling Wilder (Luke Evans), who both fuels and documents the class uprising. The supporting cast also includes Elisabeth Moss, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy and Keeley Hawes, and as I said before the acting is uniformly good. Wheatley also makes great use of the brutalist set design, and stages a number of very memorable shots, including one gruesome moment of revenge near the end seen through the lens of a kaleidoscope. The use of music is clever too, with Clint Mansell contributing an unsettling score punctuated by the equally unsettling use of Portishead’s cover version of Abba’s SOS (amongst other covers).
I suppose I ought to add warnings for bad language, violence and some strong sexual sequences, but the decadence on display here is unlikely to offend the satirically minded. Not that the satire is particularly great, I reiterate. It’s on the nose to the point that even a Margaret Thatcher quote is included, just for any thick people out there in the audience. Then again, Ballard’s novel was originally published the year Thatcher became Conservative party leader, and the plot does seem to eerily anticipate some of the events that followed.