Three months after moving into the new apartment block, Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a physiologist, was roasting the leg of a dog on a makeshift barbecue and thinking over the major changes in his life. Back when he moved in, the development had been proposed as one of the most advanced of the nineteen-seventies, with all mod cons though the further up the levels you got, the more wealthy were the residents, and Laing, though comfortably off, was not at the highest levels. Nevertheless, he could afford a balcony, and it was there he was sleeping nude one afternoon when he was awoken by a bottle breaking nearby. Jumping up with a start, he realised he was being watched by his neighbour Charlotte (Sienna Miller), someone he was going to get to know very well...
J.G. Ballard may be an influential science fiction author, and not just in the field of sci-fi, but he has not been adapted too often for the big screen in spite of his reliance on big concepts to hook in his readers. Indeed, most of his work was judged unfilmable and High-Rise was no different, with producer Jeremy Thomas endeavouring ever since it had been published in 1975 to bring it to the movies; Ballard himself died before that dream was realised, and one wonders what he would have made of a version directed by Ben Wheatley and written by his wife Amy Jump that not only copied the events of his novel but added a layer to posit what it would have been like as speculative fiction, even predictive, as if the writer had been way ahead of his time. Had he been, or was this wishful thinking?
Certainly fans of Ballard liked to see connections in his imaginings and the world that followed them, and Wheatley and Jump added a quote by one-time Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to the end of their film to put things in perspective, when the drama should really have spoken for itself and not needed to have such overemphasis bolted on. Actually, by making the themes so specific they stopped the audience from placing their own interpretation on them, although given how sharply divided opinion was on this project you could understand why they wanted to guide the viewer to the filmmaker's point of view. It was just that it tended to betray the coldly observational Ballard, not to mention undercut his rather grim sense of humour which could quite often not contain much humour at all.
Observation was the key if you wanted to get on with both the novel and the adaptation. Not for nothing did the characters who worked in the media keep on with their little documentaries even past the stage that they would be of any use to anyone, least of all themselves, but we continued to record our environment in the modern world just as they did in theirs, though often for most of us that would be constrained to the mundane, no matter how much the observer got off on it. Here were the power games, that need for control, and every person in High-Rise wrangled the block in their own manner, starting at the top where the architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) lived in palatial splendour (his wife, Ann - Keeley Hawes - is quite the Marie Antoinette). He and his wealthy denizens control through class, keeping the lower floors in their place as they exist as the idle rich, but an apocalypse can be a great leveller.
This may not have been a consciously rendered Armageddon on Ballard's part, for it's just the tower blocks that are suffering the breakdown in the novel, though there is an implication the anarchy will spread as there was in the film. But coming in the middle of a cultural obsession with the end of the world as we know it, it was unmistakable here in how Wheatley and Jump were treating the material to see the all-too-familiar opinion that we were going to hell in a handbasket and it was only a matter of time before the barbarians had won and any voice of reason was decisively silenced. Yet with Ballard, the impression was he didn't regard this as the conclusion to a failed set of circumstances, it was more an evolution than a devolution, and you did not quite sense that in this variation on his fiction. Certainly we ascertained society was in flux, but in spite of the violence and depravity, the dispassionate view was this was just as interesting as any building up of a larger community, even a smaller one, which if you treasured such trifles as not being murdered for motives that you cannot understand except on a primal urge, then there was the reason High-Rise would be effective as a horror movie. This treated the material more like a nature documentary, though slyly, and by no means a bastardisation of the source, merely different. Music by Clint Mansell.
[The great-looking Studio Canal Blu-ray has about a million interviews, a commentary with Wheatley, Hiddleston and Thomas, and a featurette on adapting Ballard as extras.]