Tom Hiddleston is the kind of actor who rivets and rewards attention. Check him out as an 007-ish spy on AMC’s The Night Manager. Or watch him defy expectations in High-Rise, director Ben Wheatley‘s hypnotically unhinged take on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 sci-fi novel about high-tech run amok. It sounds heavy, and sometimes it weighs a ton. But Wheatley and screenwriter Amy Jump (his wife) have energized Ballard’s parable of class warfare in the technology age with a daring approach that will touch a nerve or have you bolting for the exits.
Hiddleston plays Dr. Robert Laing, a bloody mess when we first see the once classy physiologist roasting a dog’s leg on his balcony. Then we flash back a few months to the day Robert first moves into a flat on the 25th-floor of the posh London high-rise, which serves as the film’s defining metaphor for 1970’s excess. Jeremy Irons feasts on the role of Anthony Royal, the architect who lives on the building’s 40th-floor penthouse while the lower classes struggle and aspire below.
Last year’s superior Snowpiercer used a train to suggest a similar class allegory. But we get the point as Robert works his way up the floors, initially with Charlotte (Sienna Miller), a hottie upstairs neighbor, and then through sex-and-drug parties (no rock & roll, just ABBA) that end in assault, rape and tribal violence among those existing in the lower depths. All hell does what you’d expect after a power outage shuts down the elevators. Luke Evans shows up as a leader of the rebel faction. But High-Rise, constricted and claustrophobic, knows where it’s heading. The lack of surprise is a disappointment, but Wheatley puts his visuals into overdrive and stuns our senses. Just try to turn away.