High-Rise is an effective adaptation of a classic dystopian novel that no longer seems like science fiction.

Directed by Ben Wheatley
Written by Amy Jump, based on the novel by JG Ballard
119 minutes, rated MA 15+

High-Rise is set in 1975, the same year the novel came out, in the middle of a troubled decade in Britain. JG Ballard was at his prescient best, forecasting the disintegration of post-war utopian ideals of housing for all, prosperity shared, a new world order.

In his 40-storey utopia, one of a number of new towers on the outskirts of London, civil war breaks out between the residents, who group themselves into new tribes of savages. The lower floors storm the upper floors, murder and executions take place, but nobody wants to leave, even if they have to drink toilet water and live on dog food. It’s its own world, hellish but complete, and there is really no place to go.

Producer Jeremy Thomas did Crash, another Ballard adaptation. He tried for decades to get High-Rise made, but it’s a hard sell.  Everyone in it is awful; there are no redeeming characters and only one or two less guilty ones. The dramatic arc is a spiral into chaos, fear and horror. Director Ben Wheatley, who loved the book at age 17, appears to have said to himself, right, better make it as a comedy then.

Wheatley is one of a new breed of British directors who walk a fine line between humour and horror. Two earlier films, Kill List and Sightseers, were funny and savage, satirical and dyspeptic. High-Rise is all that and more. It’s nasty, brutish, not exactly short at 119 minutes, but also compelling. Scriptwriter Amy Jump (partner of Wheatley in life and movies) has retained Ballard’s intelligence and the rawness that appears to have come from being interned by the Japanese in a prison camp in Shanghai when he was ten years old.

Most writers have to work towards an understanding of the worst of the human race. Ballard had to work back from it. Once his mother brought him to England after the war, he set out to become a psychiatrist. His first patient was going to be himself, but he found that writing did a better job of making sense of what he had seen.

Ballard died in 2009, his view of modern life unmellowed. For him, violence was the natural state of humanity. High-Rise wasn’t about a building; it was about the thin line between order and chaos. In a high-rise building, a power cut or a broken window can open the crack of doom.

Dr Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into his new apartment high up in the new tower, and likes what he sees: brilliant technology and complete isolation from the world below. He teaches anatomy in a London hospital and prefers cadavers to people. Like the high-rise building itself, he is beautiful on the outside.

Laing begins an affair with a woman one floor up.  Charlotte (Sienna Miller) wants his flawless body. Laing likes the innocence of her son Toby (Louis Suc), who’s about ten. Above them, the building’s designer, Royal (Jeremy Irons) fusses over drawings while his bored wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) rides a white horse around the penthouse garden. Royal says the power cuts on the lower floors are just a new building settling in.

Below Laing, the middle classes brood and complain, led by documentary film-maker Wilder (Luke Evans), whose long-suffering wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) thinks her problems would be solved by being on a higher floor – except that they can’t afford the one they’re on.

A descent into utter chaos is difficult to do on film. We don’t have the time available in a novel, but Wheatley manages it well. The film rockets along, jumping back and forth in time, moving into dreams and hallucinations, with a scarifying sense of humour. Ballard’s opening sentence pitches us into the worst of it, with Laing eating a dog on his balcony, contemplating the few short months since he moved in. The film does likewise. No point holding back.

It’s meant to leave a bad taste and it does. High-Rise is an effective adaptation of a classic dystopian novel that no longer seems like science fiction. Hurricane Katrina and the Louisiana Superdome made sure of that.