High-Rise : Inner City Problems

One of the recurring images I remember from GCSE Geography was a silhouette of a lonely looking elderly person staring glumly from out of their window of their high-rise apartment. The image was from an old VHS video of a taped BBC documentary belonging to our teacher who was adamant about scorching this particular image into our retinas so that we may understand the problems of high-rise housing in an instant. It was a vision of sadness and isolation, a picture of a person locked within an unnatural state in amidst towering concrete.

Following World War 2, the British government constructed tower block housing as a quick-fix solution to combat the deficit in good quality residential housing across the UK. Bombing in urban areas of the UK during the war had destroyed many homes, whilst remaining buildings had become too old and unsanitary to be suitable for sheltering families. The tower block became the immediate solution and initially felt like something straight out of the future. People stacked on top of one another like skybound communities. Unfortunately, high-rise living raised all new problems, including many structural imperfections, the breakdown of communities and the rise of crime. One of the worst cases of tower block development was the Hulme Crescents in Manchester. Two years after opening, the building was deemed unfit to live in. Within 19 years the complex was demolished completely. 

In 1975, JG Ballard used the changing nature of the British urban environment to form the foundation of High-Rise. The novel contains many of the themes that defined Ballard as a writer, an acute sense of British dystopia, where a mixture of external forces represented by technology and architecture begin to warp the internal psychological structure of the person, ultimately leading to catastrophe and a resurgence of our darker baser selves. Of course, our surroundings and environment are always the things we blame first when things start to go wrong. However with Ballard there is always the greater question of whether this transformation is down to our external environment or whether it comes from deep internally.

Set during the 70s, doctor Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into an apartment within a brand new state of the art luxury high-rise complex. The building is one of many brutalist concrete structures growing out of acres of car parking located within London, not that you would ever need to venture into the city should the building have its way with you. The 40-floor complex has been designed to provide its inhabitants with everything they could ever possibly want, supermarkets, schools, swimming pools and a diverse community of people – a microcosm of British culture, at least from the middle up.

Among Laing’s fellow occupants are sultry single mother Charlotte (Sienna Miller) who immediately takes a shine to him. A live wire documentary Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his lonely pregnant wife (Elizabeth Moss). The repressed dentist (Reese Shearsmith) whose wife is openly cheating on him. On the upper floors you have the rich and powerful, actress (Sienna Guillory), broadcast journalist (Peter Ferdinando) and last but not least, the building’s reclusive architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons).

The cracks in the foundation are already forming when Laing moves in. Whilst the rich and powerful occupy the top of the tower, everybody else is cooped up below them. As the various systems begin to fail around them and basic amenities are withheld from the general populace. Tension begins to form between the social classes and the establishment of warring factions leads to a regression to a more tribal state in which an atmosphere of anarchy prevails.

The horror, the horror, indeed.

You’ve got white on you.

The film adaptation of High-Rise has been in limbo for quite some time, with directors such as Nicolas Roeg being attached earlier on. For the longest time, the novel had been filed within the ‘unfilmable’ category. Almost 40 years after the novel’s release, it is director Ben Wheatley at the helm with a script written by his wife and long time collaborator Amy Jump.

Over the last decade, Wheatley and Jump have earned a reputation making a series of very gritty British movies laced with a black sense of humour and moments of great unease. They shot to prominence in 2009 with Brighton based crime thriller Down Terrace before receiving wider critical acclaim in 2011 Kill List. In 2012, they teamed up with Edgar Wright to make Sightseers, a kind of Natural Born Killers set in the North Yorkshire Moors. In all of their films, there is a mischievous spirit present and a willingness to poke constantly at the British veneer until it falls off completely exposing something truly horrible. 

Their last picture, 2013’s A Field in England was made for £300,000 and was shot entirely in black and white over the course of a week. It was released simultaneously across cinemas, TVs and streaming services. High-Rise couldn’t be more different, with a significantly larger budget to accommodate for a starrier cast and a more ambitious sci-fi scope. Then you have the ultimate badge of cool, an eclectic electronic soundtrack by Clint Mansell, which also features a cover of Abba’s SOS by Portishead. This is perhaps the most mainstream movie Wheatley has made yet.

When it comes to directing Ballard in the past, the two big directors that spring to mind are Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg. In 1987 Spielberg tackled Ballard’s most famous novel Empire of the Sun, whilst in 1996 David Cronenberg adapted Crash the author’s most controversial novel. Both the book and the film were highly divisive with Ballard examining modern man’s perverse obsession with car crashes, a kind of unholy erotic exchange of flesh and machinery. Again, that idea of human life being forcefully entwined with technology that warps the human psyche in unnatural ways.

Having made so many small scale independent movies, it’s amazing to see Wheatley approach High-Rise with such great visual confidence and ambition.

Aesthetically, High-Rise echoes the best work of Ridley Scott. The tower itself is an oppressive bladerunner esque megastructure, that bends slightly as if threatening to fall inward on itself. The movie occupies a strange identity, being a science fiction from the perspective of the 1970s, to the extent it could almost be a period piece. The interior sets are packed with detail, both domestic and sci-fi orientated. It is a feast for the eyes, and one day High-Rise will make a brilliant subject for a typeset in the future essay. The immediate lavishness of the style and look walks hand in hand with the idealised state of being that the building projects on its many occupants. Yet at the same time, the inescapable presence of concrete is everywhere to be seen, cradling and penetrating the interior and the lives of its denizens. So much concrete works to amplify the claustrophobia, slowly turning the humans against one another.

Lovely concrete.

At times, the tower feels as much a character as the human cast. It’s a double edged appraisal, because since we are talking about a large concrete structure, it is true that the actual characters can’t help but leave a similarly cold and emotionless feeling. 

The cast are all solid in their roles, but there is no real hero of the story, at least nobody the audience can vouch for one hundred per cent. Tom Hiddleston as Laing would be the most obvious contender as the central lead and would-be narrator of the piece. He exists in the mild mannered middle, a mediator between the upper and lower, but never truly picking a side. Unfortunately, he is as much a victim of the particular lifestyle the High-Rise projects, becoming increasingly detached from reality and the outside, only ever looking inwards. Ultimately he is more concerned in finding the perfect colour to paint his walls rather than the escalating conflict that surrounds him. He is a man within a box within a box, emblematic of the reserved British character in some ways. Calm and collected even when everything is on fire. Hiddleston plays him with a detached subtlety and quiet desperation.  

Luke Evans as Wilder is on the cusp of becoming the hero but his burlish masculinity takes him to the point of no return and he becomes animal. The aristocratic characters on the other hand exist primarily as caricatures of the upper classes delving in Caligula styled orgies and exercising an appalling disregard for their fellow human beings. At the very top you have Anthony Royal, who possesses a thwarted genius but no real clue on how to resolve the situation. No one is capable of saving themselves or each other, and humanity is left to fester and forget itself as the lights go out and the bloodshed rises.

High-Rise will undoubtedly divide many people. Along with all the sex and violence, not to mention the scenes plural in which absolutely terrible things happen to dogs. High-Rise will be a draining and disturbing viewing experience. it’s been a long time since I’ve viewed a movie that has been so divisive with audiences. Even as I was leaving the cinema, I could hear comments ranging from both extremes. 

We are talking about JG Ballard, however, a man who wrote a book about the erotic allure of car crashes.  We’re also talking about Ben Wheatley who delights in unnerving the viewer with scenes that make the spine tingle. High-Rise is a very straight and literal adaptation of the novel and in many ways Ballard and Wheatley, are a match made in heaven.

Needless to say, the soundtrack is also brilliant. And this poster is brilliant… 

High-Rise ultimately delivers the well worn message that humanity is well and truly doomed. On one hand this is a nihilistic reading in a way that the great dystopian works usually are. But then, there is a certain catharsis in the realisation that we are all fucked. Once we can admit this fact, once we hit the bottom, or at least witness it, those that remain can begin the means to progress forward and somehow make the world better. At least that’s the plan anyhow… I guess I have to find some kind of optimism.  

Though set in the 70s, the story still feels very relevant. The wealth gap between the 1% and everybody else is getting bigger and the bitterness between rich and poor is more potent than ever. The social classes are painted in broad brushstrokes as stereotypes everyday. Then you have people absorbed in computer screens depicting an idealised version of the lives through social media to disguise the overall banality of life. The high-rise is really an accelerated catalyst for social disarray, but on reflection we don’t necessarily need a tower block for things to collapse.

Ben Wheatley successfully channels the spirit of JG Ballard to create a film that is hard to watch in places and difficult to process. Be under no illusions, for all the 70s sci-fi gloss, the fantastic soundtrack and sexual theatrics, High-Rise is completely and utterly rotten to the core. But it’s all okay, because that is kind of the point. High-Rise won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you do find some enjoyment in prodding the darker truths of our modern existence, particularly our own sense of Britishness – it’s a must see.   

To be perfectly honest, I loved it. 

Recommended Viewing

Empire of the Sun [1987]

JG Ballard’s most beloved novel is also one of Spielberg’s most underrated pictures. Shame that kid never went off to do bigger things…


Crash [1996]

Ballard was never afraid to get to grips with the more complex parts of the human psyche. David Cronenberg is the film director least likely to walk away from these kind of difficult themes. And look! James Spader being sexually turned on by car crashes!



When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth [1970]

After the problems of high-rise living, world war 2, and sexy sexy car crashes, it may be a good idea to watch cavemen being attacked by dinosaurs. Ballard originally wrote the treatment so it does fit.

I like this Tom Hiddleston guy. 


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