Tom Hiddleston (centre) in a still from High-Rise.

High-Rise takes a multistorey look at an imploding society

Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Sienna Miller star in dystopian drama about upward mobility and power plays in an apartment building

An apocalyptic scenario doesn’t always mean the end of the world. In the sci-fi drama High-Rise, society devolves into war and madness over the 40 floors of an apartment building.

Based on the 1975 J.G. Ballard novel, the movie stars Tom Hiddleston as medical-school professor Robert Laing, who moves into the 25th floor of an ultra-swank, cutting-edge building that acts as a visual metaphor for class structure: lower classes live in the bottom levels, and the higher floors are reserved for the upper classes.

Swimming pools and a grocery store inside the complex give residents everything they’d ever need, but when there are power outages, food shortages and a lack of waste removal, things get progressively crazier to the point of people riding horses around the place, a mentally unstable man (Luke Evans) plotting against the building’s chief architect (Jeremy Irons) and Laing losing his cool enough to fight tooth and nail for a can of paint. (Not to mention the women, played by Elisabeth Moss, Sienna Miller and others, who find their own ways to gain power amid the implosion.)

Tom Hiddleston and Elisabeth Moss in a still from the film.
British director Ben Wheatley (Kill List) admits that “it’s not like Metropolis where the downtrodden underclasses rise up to take over from their high-minded masters. It’s the rich fighting the rich, and the class war quickly dissolves into something else – it becomes tribal and then it becomes individuals fighting for their own tiny part of it.”

Hiddleston was drawn to what he describes as the intelligence of the adapted screenplay by Wheatley’s wife, Amy Jump, but also to the extremity of the novel’s themes: inequality, instinct and appetite. In it Ballard likens the high-rise to a “vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other.”

Director Ben Wheatley on the set of High-Rise.
“Ballard understood the dangers of substituting the rule of technology for the natural world,” Hiddleston says. “When the electricity starts to fail and food supplies diminish, petty disagreements mount to precipitate a full-scale moral dissolution. [Ballard] creates a world where the codes of civilisation and the boundaries of mutual respect can be transgressed to give way to a new way of life: feral, barbaric [and] every man for himself.”

The class warfare, consumerism and undoing of community in High-Rise are still relevant. And Wheatley sees other parallels between today’s world and the one when the novel was released in the 1970s, an era with terrorism, worry about ecological collapse and the rise of the right wing. (There was also the idea of nuclear annihilation “just to add that extra horror,” Wheatley says with a laugh.)

Jeremy Irons (right) in a scene from the film.
The downward spiral of the characters in Ballard’s predictive sci-fi work is understandable given the writer’s own childhood: His life was turned upside down living in China and being placed in a internment camp by the Japanese during the second world war. (Those experiences inspired his 1984 novel Empire of the Sun.)

“When I think of my own life, you meet it halfway,” Wheatley explains. “You go, ‘Well, it’s all going to be OK. I’m not going to lose my job, I’m going to keep my health, the house will be here today as it is tomorrow.’ You have to think like that not to go insane because otherwise everything would be terrifying.

“But Ballard had that experience. He didn’t meet society halfway, he didn’t enjoy the fantasy of it. He could see through it all.”

High-Rise opens on July 28