Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s latest project sees them tackle J.G. Ballard’s eponymous novel which, often deemed “unfilmable”, has been in the pipeline for forty years. Safe to say they make it entirely cinematic with the help of Mark Tildesley’s incredible production design and clinical camera work by Laurie Rose. With signature black humour, their vision of a future that has already passed still retains its dystopian horror. While the script subtly updates the text, inserting contemporary issues such as the environment, Ballard’s concern with the class system and organised living remains the central theme, underscoring the author’s prescience.
The film opens with a dishevelled but still suave Dr Laing (Tom Hiddleston) nonchalantly roasting some dog on his balcony, spinning a Bach record as his narration affirms, “For all its inconveniences, Laing was satisfied with life in the high rise.” Jumping back three months to when he first moved in, we tour the all-inclusive life of the tower; its supermarket, leisure facilities, and regular parties. It’s no surprise when Laing calls in sick for work with the justification, “Everything I need is here.” However, Clint Mansell’s score soon starts to darken as lights flicker and cracks appear in this “paradigm for future developments”. The building is characterised to the extent that the walls seem to have laboured breathing. Soon, the vertical delegation of power supply creates unrest in the lower floors and a montage of the descent into chaos bridges the sterile opening with the more barbaric and surreal latter half.
In this microcosm of society the “real” families lurk at the bottom while the aloof architect – aptly named Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) – sits atop in the clouds as his wife trots around the baroque rooftop garden on a white horse. Laing’s question of why Goya’s Witches Sabbath is hung in his apartment and not a gallery is answered by the black goat slinking around corridors during the montage of the tower’s disintegration: his design, with the tower literally skewed in favour of the upper floors, has released the devil of human nature as relations crumble into class warfare in the face of survival instinct. The painting also foreshadows the coalition of women towards the end of the film; ignoring social structures they rally round each other as the men fight for power like wild dogs.
The “excellent specimen” of Laing is played clinically by Hiddleston – cold on the surface he leaves a lingering, unsettled portrait. The reverberations from the sister he recently lost are perfectly echoed in Portishead’s eerie and powerful cover of ABBA’s S.O.S, “when you’re gone, how can I even try to go on?” unearths the grief at his core. Earlier in the film, an orchestral version of the song concealed the lyrics as the buoyant melody accompanied the
upper floors’ grandiose Versailles party, masking the breakdown in the high rise that the tragic lyrics later capture. The party’s anachronistic theme parades their supremacy as royals reborn and begs for a modern guillotine – though a fall of forty floors will do the trick. Shots of Laing at work exposing human brains are perhaps more literal than necessary; peeling the face off and cracking open the skull mirrors the events. Often withdrawn into himself, the other stars step up to plate. Luke Evans plays Richard Wilder and, true to his name, becomes increasingly devolved through the film, devouring dog food and raping people “he isn’t supposed to”. The ambiguous and teasing Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) becomes shadowed by forces above her and the performances and characters are one of the films strengths; delightfully mischievous they accomplish a surprising depth and humanity as the film progresses.
The film’s pacing is fractured and the inconsistent focus on narrative becomes increasingly distracted as the malaise palpably emits from the polished concrete prison. The refusal of a normal narrative is the film’s finest merit; the audience are left in the strange wake of technology and human instincts finest battle: “modern living”.