This year’s seemingly endless presidential election cycle has forced us to consider what America may look like with Donald Trump at the helm. The horrifying images that come to mind — rampant xenophobia, unabashed racism, an ugly blonde mop he calls hair — elicit not merely anger, but despondency. A free world run, in part, by Trump would likely cause some to shutter, to close themselves off from the unseemly outside world and create a new one within.
This new universe, however, might look like the milieu created in Ben Wheatley’s “High-Rise” (now available via iTunes and Amazon Video; opens theatrically May 13), a faithful adaptation of J.G. Ballard‘s landmark 1975 novel about upscale residents in a sleek apartment complex gone mad. What was once dystopic about Ballard’s prose seems prescient. If left to our own devices, would we collectively set the world on fire?
At the center of this cautionary tale is Dr. Robert Liang (Tom Hiddleston), a physiologist who moves into this towering high-rise to start anew. He could’ve uprooted to a bachelor pad downtown, as lower-level neighbor Helen (Elisabeth Moss) suggests, but Liang wants to build something substantive — a foundation for a potential family.
At first, everything at the high-rise seems operational. It’s an architectural utopia for the affluent and middle-class. Each room is meticulously crafted for optimal living conditions. A minimalist aesthetic — which feels especially modern in 2016 — permeates Wheatley’s vision of the future. Furniture is sparse and chic. Elevators seem to be taken from ornate five-star hotels. Even the swimming pool, which hosts children and adults alike, is slickly designed. Like Robert himself, every inch of this tenement is immaculate, precisely sculpted so as to give the illusion of stability and perfection.
That illusion, though, quickly begins to crumble after one of the high-rise’s outlandish bacchanals. This irreverent party, replete with sex, drugs and dancing, seems never quite to come to a conclusion. Boogying soon turns into brawling, as aggression amongst the denizens mounts. What was once an unsullied complex inhabited by “happy people” transmutes into a bourgeois wasteland.
The degeneration is rapid, too: Characters waste little time before turning on one another, with backstabbing proving to come as second nature, deeply embedded inside those who want to survive. Selfishness pervades. Most become skeptical of Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives atop the complex in his labyrinth as the de facto leader of the high-rise. Envy of Royal’s unchecked wealth and power morphs into resentment, and then resentment into violence.
At first, it’s uncertain whether Robert will succumb to the barbarism until, of course, there’s no alternative. Hiddleston has always managed to be menacing and disturbed as Loki in the Marvel movies, but it’s when he works with visionaries like Woody Allen (“Midnight in Paris”), Terence Davies (“The Deep Blue Sea”) or Steven Spielberg (“War Horse”) that he shines brightest. Robert is a confluence of laconicism and confidence; he’s icy and distant, sexually and emotionally detached from most encounters he has with fellow residents, and yet, he proves to be empathetic by the film’s bitter end.
Although Wheatley plays it close to the page, he manages to forge his own unique interpretation of the subject material. The British auteur’s sardonic sense of humor, as seen in “Sightseers” and “A Field in England,” remains intact. At times, it’s hard to tell whether he truly relishes in the pain and suffering his characters undergo: There’s a sadistic streak in “High-Rise” that’s simultaneously hypnotizing and unnerving. If there’s a morality to Wheatley’s world, it’s nebulous at best. The film presents characters as cogs in an unstoppable machine headed toward destruction, responding, instinctively, to the devolution of society.
Is Wheatley a masochist who enjoys digging through the bloodshed, or a revolutionary who can’t fathom making anything else? Whatever the case may be, the hierarchy, both within the film and in the film industry itself, is crumbling, and there’s nothing much we can do about it — other than, perhaps, putting on an Ink Spots record, sitting back, and watching it all go up in flames.