In an appreciation published in The Guardian a few days after the death of J.G. Ballard, in April 2009, Martin Amis noted that the paragon of New Wave science fiction was "remorselessly visual." Ben Wheatley's muddled adaptation of the dystopian 1975 novel High-Rise -- one of many Ballard books that examine the pathologizing effects of modern technology and convenience -- suffers from being both too literal and too obtuse in its alterations. The film doesn't do much more than dramatize the tableaux of bedlam and rot laid out in the source text.
The edifice of the title is a 40-story Brutalist tower equipped with its own shopping center, swimming pools and other mod cons; the 2,000 tenants of this "vertical city," as Ballard calls it, make up "a virtually homogeneous collection of well-to-do professional people." Taking up residence on the 25th floor is Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a seemingly imperturbable physiologist who -- along with all of his neighbors, including Royal (Jeremy Irons), the building's architect and penthouse dweller -- will soon be committing acts of unspeakable savagery.
There is no single triggering event, just an inexorable slide into mayhem and tribal allegiances, with the top, middle and lower floors representing a descending caste order. Wheatley reproduces to the letter several of Ballard's melees and plunderings. The pall of rape in the novel is lightened to become a bawdy floor show when a celebrity inhabitant issues this challenge: "Which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the ass?" The moment, and too many others in Wheatley's adaptation, leaves the Ballardian behind for blue-movie Benny Hill.