English novelist J.G. Ballard, the George Orwell of postmodern science fiction, was fascinated by the dystopian collision of modern technology and human vulnerability. His 1975 novel “High-Rise” explored a sky-high city undergoing social collapse. Each hulking concrete floor was the habitat for a distinct class, rising from proletariat, to elites, up to the architect literally ruling the roost from the penthouse. On the premium levels, balconies offer broad views to residents willing to lean forward out of balance.
Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of the fable casts Tom Hiddleston as a cranial physician newly moved to the 25th floor, where he is disdained from above, resented below. He explores the building’s huge indoor swimming pool, gym, vast grocery and floor-wide weekend drug parties calmly at first. He arrives in the building with the cucumber-cool nonchalance of a first-class passenger on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, but charming, cultured, disciplined skull-slicing doctors can have their barbaric sides, too. Just ask Mr. Hyde.
Jeremy Irons plays the godlike designer of the building, hosting the upper crust’s crowded costume parties as nasty, Versailles nobility. There are plenty of sadistic boors in the working class, as well, and glitches that make the building a claustrophobic 24-hour migraine. After a couple of months, this luxury laboratory for social progress descends into a decadent, slow-mo, adults gone wild, rape-filled version of “Lord of the Flies.”
The film nails the mid-’70s love/hate aesthetic of hip little cars, bell bottoms and Abba hits, twisting each to sulfuric ugliness. Portishead’s cover of “SOS” turns it from Swedish disco pop to a sonic nightmare. Still more unsettling are halls strewn with garbage bags, broken bottles, graffiti, excrement and the blood of the weak. It’s an interesting experiment in bemused, ironic entropy, provided you can suspend disbelief start to finish and keep your last meal in your abdomen.
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☆☆☆ out of 5.
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss.
Director: Ben Wheatley.
Running time: 1:59.
Rated: R, for violence, disturbing images, strong sexual content/graphic nudity, language and some drug use.