In 1955, the city of St. Louis finished construction on the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate, designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki (who would later build New York City’s Twin Towers). A raw-concrete sprawl of 33 tower blocks, it was meant to halt the spread of slums by building up, and to give residents parks, playgrounds, convenient shopping and cleaner air.

By 1972, Pruitt-Igoe was demolished. Occupancy was never full, the green areas never materialized, and the maze of stairwells and elevators was intimidating and anonymous. Tenants described “no man’s lands … places where it was impossible to tell resident from intruder,” ridden with graffiti, grime and crime. Yamasaki could only shake his head: “I never thought people were that destructive.”

Perhaps he lacked some basic understanding of human nature. The author J.G. Ballard, who grew up in a wartime internment camp outside Shanghai, had no such illusions. Ballard looked at the imposing, New Brutalist housing estates around him — particularly Balfron Tower in East London, designed by Erno Goldfinger, who was loathed enough by Londoners to have a Bond villain named after him — and penned his dystopian near-future novel “High-Rise.”

Run Time 118 mins
Language English
Opens AUG. 6

First published in 1976, “High-Rise” captured something that people could sense but not yet express: There was something about the very design of these buildings that impelled people toward bad outcomes. Ballard’s strength lay in the dull, detached descriptions of the all-mod-cons lifestyle in the tower, the aspirational prose of bureaucrats and ad-men, which ever so gradually finds itself describing the insane, as class tensions and disputes boil over into atavistic savagery. It’s a hard tone to replicate on screen, which is why producer Jeremy Thomas struggled for 30 years to realize the project.

At long last director Ben Wheatley brings an adaptation of “High-Rise” to the big screen, but this movie is “based on” Ballard’s novel in much the same way that a bowel movement is based on your dinner. Where Ballard’s use of violence is controlled and meant to shock, Wheatley’s is lurid and all a bit of a lark. You can almost feel the director’s pervy glee as he shows a body dropping 30-odd stories onto a car hood in slow motion, or lingers on shots of a gruesome cranial autopsy.

Wheatley sets his film in the mid-1970s, and brings a “Mad Men”-level of detail to its polyester and shag sets and “swinger” parties. Tom Hiddleston plays Robert Laing, a smooth, social-climbing doctor who lives on one of the middle floors, while Jeremy Irons plays Anthony Royal, the building’s architect living on its luxurious top floor, and Luke Evans appears as Richard Wilder, a brutish plebeian who’s stuck below them. In the book, they represent the building’s ego, superego and id, respectively, but allegory is harder to pull off on film. A bunch of good actresses, including Sienna Miller and Elizabeth Moss, appear in roles that mostly require them to be used sexually.

Wheatley largely goes for pure sensation, creating dizzying montages of rape, murder and looting. Characters you don’t buy do things you don’t believe for reasons you’re not given. Laing works out in a suit and tie and covers himself in blue paint; Wilder records himself hooting and howling like a baboon; Royal has a lame leg in one scene and vigorously plays squash in the next. It’s all a bit too Nicolas Winding Refn.

The hardest part of “High-Rise” to swallow is the fact that however bad things get — with blackouts, food shortages and mayhem — the building is like the Hotel California: no one ever leaves.

Perhaps the novel has dated: Ballard suggested that people would immerse themselves completely in these new enclosed spaces and run wild; he had the right idea, but the wrong medium. There is a place where people go to freely unleash their urges of superiority, misogyny and resentment; it’s called the internet.

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