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Civilization breaks down in 'High-Rise' (R)

High-Rise is the latest so-called unfilmable book that has, yes, been filmed. Directed by Ben Wheatley, it comes from the J.G. Ballard allegory, in which Ballard compressed an entire, fading British Empire’s worth of spiritual depletion and class warfare into what he described in his 1975 novel as “a gigantic vertical zoo,” with “hundreds of cages stacked above each other.”

In Amy Jump’s clever screenplay adaptation, the protagonist, Dr. Laing (Tom Hiddleston), becomes our narrator, and through his eyes we see everything go straight to hell. It begins in relative calm, as Laing, conspicuously single, moves into his apartment, surrounded for weeks afterward by unpacked boxes. “You’re an excellent specimen,” coos his upstairs neighbor, played by Sienna Miller, who knocks a Champagne bottle off her balcony onto Laing’s. The parties never stop in this building.

The building’s architect (Jeremy Irons) lives on the top floor, his terrace gardens large enough to be mistaken for a provincial manor home’s grounds. Clearly this is no socialist experiment. The high-rise has its upper classes on the upper floors and everyone else beneath. The building may as well be one of the monster-towers on the Steely Dan Royal Scam album cover. The parties thrown by the upper crust in High-Rise resemble something out of a Restoration comedy; meantime, on the lower floors, the socializing is pure mid-’70s raucousness, full of cocaine and disco and unattended offspring.

When the power outages begin, and the plumbing system starts acting up and withholding fresh water, High-Rise amps up the chaos. Jump and Wheatley chose to locate the action of High-Rise in 1975, so their film is a retro-futurist nightmare, full of massive sideburns and shirt collars, as well as orgies and ennui freely inspired by the works of Lindsay Anderson (O Lucky Man!), Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) and Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth). Roeg in fact was on track to make a film from Ballard’s novel, but it never worked out. The one we have is worth seeing, if only for the organic strangeness of the designs and the consistent rightness of its casting. Hiddleston makes for a fabulous cipher, both observer and participant in his increasingly deadly surroundings.

Ballard has been filmed before, notably by Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun) and David Cronenberg (Crash, about car crash fetishists). He is not an easy transfer, and some of the narrative descriptions from his novel have been reassigned to this or that character’s dialogue in High-Rise, to mixed results. But you go with it; it’s potent and alluring in its visions of Brutalist excess. One line not heard in the movie, from the novel, hits the nail on the head: “Life in the high-rise had begun to resemble the world outside –  there were the same ruthlessness and aggression concealed within a set of polite conventions.” Director Wheatley, aided enormously by the harsh beauty of Laurie Rose’s cinematography and Mark Tildesley’s production design, augments his Northern Ireland location work with some canny digital effects to show us what Ballard was telling us.

Was he telling us anything new, really? Maybe not. But the movie’s rich and strange all the same.

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss.

Director: Ben Wheatley.

Screenwriter: Amy Jump. Based on the novel by J.G. Ballard.

A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 119 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, disturbing images, strong sexuality, nudity, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.