Ben Wheatley’s film High-Rise will hit theaters in March, placing Tom Hiddleston in a luxury building closed off to the rest of the world. The film, which is based on the 1975 science fiction novel by J.G. Ballard, has been a long time coming. Back in the ’70s, British producer Jeremy Thomas attempted to adapt the novel for the screen. Thomas picked up the project again in the early 2000s, but wasn’t able to make the film he had wanted to. In 2013, Ben Wheatley bought the rights to adapt the book into film, and the process of making High-Rise began again.
So why did the story of a tall building and its inhabitants plague two filmmakers for decades? Because it’s downright disturbing! J.G. Ballard’s novel told a story of excess and corruption back in the 1970s, and those themes have remained relevant as the economic landscape of the United States shifted. Sadly, the lengths to which the one percent will reach to cut themselves off from society are relevant again, and High-Rise will explore those fever dreams.
J.G. Ballard’s novel begins with one of the best sci-fi opening lines in literary history, and its disturbing look at the warping of the human psyche only grows from there.
“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
What makes the fictionalized story most intriguing is the fact that many analysts believe Ballard’s novel was inspired by what transpired at Trellick Tower in England, in the early 1970s. According to historical accounts, the Tower was built to house hundreds of people and provide their basic needs — a grocery store, a swimming pool, and a huge gym — so they might never have to leave the Brutalist-syle building. Power outages and technical difficulties began to aggravate the Tower’s inhabitants, and though the building was meant to be a utopia, it devolved into a nightmare building full of rapists and murderers roaming the halls under flickering lights, searching for victims.
The true story of the tower was rife for a horrifying sci-fi novel; witnesses said attackers awaited their victims in the building’s dimly lit stairwells, which were used often due to the elevators being out of service.
Many architectural scholars and psychologists have attempted to explain why Trellick Tower inspired so many tenants to exhibit “antisocial behavior”. Social isolation seems to be the most popular theorized culprit, though it’s intriguing that the deaths that occurred in the Tower were not always born of violence. One woman, a young mother, leaped to her death from an upper floor, driven to suicide by whatever was developing inside the Tower. Back in 2014, Vice pointed out that art about the Tower had began fetishizing its history of violence without offering solutions to or explanations for the inhabitants’ moral decay. 2016’s film will further fetishize this violence, of course, but critics have adored it so far, perhaps for this reason.
Casting uber-sexual Tom Hiddleston in the film’s lead role, seems, as Radio Times pointed out, a direct attempt to sensualize the story’s violence. One can look at a naked Hiddleston reclining with a sheet of paper over his crotch that says “welcome” for only so long without conceding that the High-Rise film has something to say about sex and violence. The film’s posters, which feature falling bodies laid over sleek and sexy classics cars, feel in line with this angle, as well.
Does the story of Trellick Tower confirm that humans, when left to their own devices, are inherently cruel and hedonistic? The building’s architect famously negated accusations that his Brutalist design made inhabitants feel cut off from society. “I built skyscrapers for people to live in there and now they messed them up,” he said in the ’70s. “Disgusting.” Chaos reigned in the Tower from the first day of its opening, when unnamed vandals split open a fire hydrant near the front of the building, which frazzled the building’s electrical system to the point where it never fully recovered.
It’s not clear where High-Rise will place the blame for its story’s brutal details, but if the film follows Ballard’s novel closely, urban decay and the impersonal nature of technology will take the fall for warping human nature. Either way, the film is going to be a wild ride.