While the setting of J.G. Ballard's novel High-Rise might be the 1970s, it is a story as relevant to our times as ever, something director Ben Wheatley has recognised with his latest film. An evocative mix of drama, sci-fi and horror, Wheatley's High-Rise (2015) holds a mirror up to our society and shows us a bizarre, nightmarish vision in return.
That nightmare seems far from possible for the residents of the exquisite tower block of the title though - a building that gains a new tenant when Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves in. And yet while Robert and the other tenants might not feel the approaching terror, the viewer certainly does from the very start. Creating menacing undertones throughout (and not just with an intriguing prologue that foreshadows things to come), Wheatley and writer Amy Jump gradually build up the weirdness as the tensions between people living on different floors of the block start to emerge. Cue power cuts, violent outbursts and even worse as the high rise slowly starts to succumb to madness and everyone forgets that there is actually an exit to the building.
It is in these later moments of the tale that High-Rise truly impresses, Wheatley creating horrific, violent tableaus similar to those he used in Sightseers (2012) and his last film A Field in England (2013). As in those films, these sequences are almost disorientating, increasing in their frequency and strangeness as the high rise descends into chaos and the building's power begins to take over.
While this idea of a building as a living thing is far from a new concept, Wheatley and Jump give Ballard's concept a fresh lease of life with their usual eclectic mix of genres, as well as a dark, comic element that sits alongside the more horrific moments. This heady mix of genres also gives new life to the old themes of class, wealth and power featured in Ballard's story, as does the genius casting of Tom Hiddleston in the central role. Playing on the actor's own upper class background, his Dr. Robert Laing floats uncomfortably between the divided residents - literally as he resides on the floor above the lower classes but below the upper, and figuratively in the company he keeps. With a stunning portrayal, Hiddleston makes his Laing relatable yet increasingly ambiguous as time goes on - an intriguing character who sits somewhere between good and evil.
As great as Hiddleston is though, Luke Evans is an absolute revelation as Richard Wilder, a rakish documentary filmmaker who is hellbent on destroying his and everyone else's lives...or is he being truthful when he says he is trying to save them all? Whatever Wilder's motivations though, Evans gives a truly energised performance and is riveting in every moment, as well as completely terrifying in some others.
With excellent performances from the rest of the brilliant ensemble cast (especially Sienna Miller, James Purefoy and Jeremy Irons), High-Rise is a gripping and intriguing watch from start to finish, with a disturbing, macabre undercurrent throughout. A perfect adaptation of Ballard's original tale and a clever exploration of how much society is still governed by class, Jump and Wheatley prevent High-Rise from becoming tired or too much of a preachy allegory with an exciting mix of genres, as well as a heavy dose of humour. Ending on a speech by Margaret Thatcher we are suddenly reminded of the 70s setting of the story. For most of this, High-Rise really could be any building in any time - less of a nightmare and more of an inevitability.