In an appreciation published in The Guardian a few days after the death of J.G. Ballard, in April 2009, Martin Amis noted that the paragon of New Wave science fiction was “remorselessly visual.” Ben Wheatley’s muddled adaptation of the dystopian 1975 novel High-Rise — one of many Ballard books that examine the pathologizing effects of modern technology and convenience — suffers from being both too literal and too obtuse in its alterations. The film doesn’t do much more than dramatize the tableaux of bedlam and rot laid out in the source text, neglecting its “inner space,” which Ballard defined as “the internal landscape of tomorrow that is a transmuted image of the past.”
Reteaming with his frequent collaborator Amy Jump, who serves here as both screenwriter and co-editor (sharing that duty with the director), Wheatley re-creates the mid-‘70s via garish interior design, even more ghastly wigs and Portishead’s emotionally leached cover of ABBA’s transcendent ‘75 chart-topper “SOS.” The edifice of the title is a 40-story Brutalist tower equipped with its own shopping center, swimming pools and other mod cons; the 2,000 tenants of this “vertical city,” as Ballard calls it, make up “a virtually homogeneous collection of well-to-do professional people.” Taking up residence on the 25th floor is Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a seemingly imperturbable physiologist who — along with all of his neighbors, including Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building’s architect and penthouse dweller — will soon be committing acts of unspeakable savagery. (Pointedly, Laing shares a surname with the renowned psychiatrist R.D., whose groundbreaking treatise on madness, The Divided Self, was published in 1960).
Both the book and the film open with a barbaric image — of Laing on his balcony feasting on roasted dog — before tracking back three months earlier, when these affluent leasers first began to reveal their bloodlust. There is no single triggering event, just an inexorable slide into mayhem and tribal allegiances, with the top, middle and lower floors representing a descending caste order. Wheatley — whose first film, the black comedy Down Terrace (2009), sharply tracked regression and bad behavior in a two-story house — reproduces to the letter several of Ballard’s melees and plunderings. But he adds to the orgy of violence some grotesqueries of his own.
Twice we see Laing — during a demonstration to his medical students, in one of the few scenes to take place outside the chaotic apartment block — peel the flesh off a severed head before taking construction tools to the skull. The pall of rape in the novel is lightened to become a bawdy floor show when a celebrity inhabitant of one of the upper stories issues this challenge: “Which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the ass?” The moment, and too many others in Wheatley’s adaptation, leaves the Ballardian behind for blue-movie Benny Hill.