So what kind of society is it? Royal is a paternalistic architect presiding over a design experiment attempting to create a new kind of person – his apartment blocks are shaped like the fingers of a hand stretching out into the sky. Like the Tower of Babel, it doesn't go to plan. The allusion suggests a nod to the hubris of man, and the attempt to forge godhood out of the dust we are and the dust we shall return to.
People going feral in the corridors of stylish modern buildings suggests a clash between the order we try to create, and the inevitable resistance such creations provoke. Royal's name is significant. He is the descendant of a benevolent aristocracy devoted to their schemes to improve the world – and the people on the lower rungs of the ladder. But people don't fit into the boxes Royal stuffs them into. The planner's utopia is a failure.
The trigger for the revolt is partly the hypocrisy of the elite, who conduct extravagant parties while the tenants at the bottom of the building put up with blackouts. Royal is too steeped in his privilege to notice what is going on, and at the end gets replaced by Laing – a new kind of elite, sociopathically detached from other people, able to ride the wave of destruction let loose by the end of the old hierarchy.
The snippet of Thatcher's speech contrasts 'state capitalism', where resources are controlled from the top, with the freedom of the marketplace. Royal's aristocratic ways get thrown out in the revolution. The post-war consensus, run by grey upper-class men and their lackeys, is smashed. Deference is replaced with licence – the codes of politeness and repression that keep society going collapse. It is not a comforting sight. The lot of women spirals from putting up with condescension and passive aggression to being at the receiving end of physical abuse and rape.
People in the new order are free to fight for the space and resources to assert themselves in the world. Laing manages to wrestle out a can of paint from the bedlam of the supermarket in order to paint his room. He is strong and determined enough to fulfill his projects. Wilder is less lucky – he ends up under a table screaming his own name into a recorder. His failure to achieve his projects turns him into a brute. In a moment of lucidity, before he spurs him on to his doom, Laing calls him the sanest man in the building. The two are alike, but Laing doesn't push against the powers-that-be, he just stands aside as they get overthrown.
Invoking Thatcher may be a way for the filmmakers to show what happens when you try to abolish society. The film is darkly funny on the iniquities and decadence of the ruling classes, but it seems to suggest that rampant individualism is a lot more scary. I don't think there is a hankering for a return to the stifling social mores that keep people in check, but the trade off seems to be unrestrained brutality. In the end a new equilibrium is reached. Society goes on, a new family is formed between Laing, Melville and the little boy listening to Thatcher. It looks a rather cold, inhospitable place.
I haven't read the book, but the film definitely captures something of Ballard's style and preoccupations. The pace feels a little loose, and the visuals a little short of hypnotic, to the point where I got slightly bored through some of it. Ben Wheatley pays many debts to Terry Gilliam's Brazil – which I find a more beautiful and unsettling film. But bringing Ballard to the screen is no small feat – and there's plenty to chew over if you're able to sit all the way through it.