Based on J.G. Ballard’s dystopian science-fiction novel of the same name, High-Rise is a baffling mess of a film that begins with glimmers of promise that slowly give way to increasingly turbulent waves of disappointment and, ultimately, dissatisfaction. It works so hard to come across as a scathing social commentary about class warfare and urban decay but director Ben Wheatley doesn’t articulate any of his points with any kind of original perspective or even with much coherence in the first place. He seems almost willful in his attempts to muddle any possible character motivation or to obscure promising narrative threads for the sake of being “unconventional” in his storytelling. If that seems like a frustrating proposition, that’s because it certainly is.
We are introduced to Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) 3 months after he checks into a luxurious high-rise tower block, where living conditions appear to have descended into total chaos. We then flash back to the chronological beginning (a cinematic convention that I’m starting to loathe) to find Laing moving into an apartment on the 25th floor of the comparatively civilized complex. Beyond the favorable living quarters, the building also sports higher level amenities such as a built-in supermarket and even a primary school, ensuring that tenants hardly ever have to leave the premises.
Shortly after moving in, he strikes up a relationship with single mother Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and a friendship with pregnant couple Richard (Luke Evans) and Helen (Elisabeth Moss). We soon learn of a hierarchy that exists within the high-rise, where members of the upper class, led by the building’s architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), are rewarded with higher level accommodations while those in the middle and lower class fare in the lower dwelling apartments. This disparity, along with continuous power failures that disproportionately affect the lower class tenants, causes dissension and outbursts of violence throughout the tower.
As the anarchy picks up, Wheatley and his screenwriter Amy Jump concoct scenes that seem to have very little consequence or bearing on the tenuous narrative at hand. Unsurprisingly, repetitive shots of tenants (edited at an obnoxiously swift pace by Wheatley and Jump) engaging in drunken dances at wild parties don’t add up to an especially interesting story. Any advances to the plot, as when one character mandates that another character undergo a lobotomy, seem to come completely out of left field and don’t allow for any kind of engagement with the characters on an emotional or psychological level.
The high points of the film come down to spot-on, chic 1970s set design and Laurie Rose’s steely-eyed, often breathtaking cinematography but there’s not much to grab onto outside of aesthetics. Even the usually brilliant Clint Mansell can’t find his footing with a musical score that meanders through various genres without building any kind of memorable motifs in the process, although two instances of ABBA’s pop song “SOS” are used creatively in back-to-back scenes. There may be a method to High-Rise‘s madness but as long as the storyteller remains so unwilling to meet the viewer halfway, there’s no good reason to seek it out.