The war of the classes is a battle that has gone back through the ages. The theme is timeless and there will always be movies exploring the concept. In recent years we have gotten some interesting films, like Snowpiercer, which have distinct auteur visions that captured the struggle, while still delivering an entertaining two hours. The most recent movie to explore the issue is Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise.
High-Rise is a the latest adaptation from the works of J.G. Ballard, whose novels have inspired everything from Crash to Empire of the Sun. Wheatley managed to assemble an impressive cast led by Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers), Jeremy Irons (Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), Sienna Miller (American Sniper), and Luke Evans (Dracula Untold). While the movie feels as though it takes place in the 1960’s it is hinted that this is a far off future. Society is organized into a single skyscraper complex with the destitute to the elite arranged in a vertical fashion. Hiddleston plays the lead, Dr. Robert Laing, who recounts the three month disintegration of the highrise. He is a new physician for the complex and he is both witness and accomplice in unearthing the ugly underbelly of the building. Hiddleston has a reserved cool as Laing, proving that he has undeniable acting chops even if his charisma is muted with a reserved performance in the film.
The movie attempts to show how thin the line is between order and complete anarchy in society. Those in the highest floors are preoccupied with pettiness, while unfettered by the struggles of those on the lower floors. All the while, the ones that threaten the sanctity of the entire skyscraper reside in the upper levels. Evans plays an unhinged documentarian whose manic presence looms in every scene that he is in. His character is both a breath of fresh air and a reminder of the chaos under the facade of the building. Irons plays the architect of the building, whose performance grounds the film while Laing and the viewer are introduced to the complex.
While Wheatley stays relatively close to the source material, the movie’s pacing and lack of narrative cohesion is ultimately its undoing. A lot of time is spent introducing characters and scenarios in the first half, yet it’s hard to connect to any of them since they don’t feel truly three-dimensional. There is some creative cinematography and it feels as though this was the director’s attempt at a David Lynch or Cronenberg film that went astray. However, there are some shots and sequences of beauty which shows the potential of the director, yet the muddled storytelling is what ultimately holds his vision back.
Ironically, the movie itself might engender the same time of class divide over the film’s quality. It’s easy to see a high-minded viewer to find the art in the movie, while it’s just as easy to imagine people who are simply expecting to be entertained, finding High-Rise a bore. However, if you have to break a film down just to find the engaging points, it’s a definite sign that the movie needs work. High-Rise proves to not be either an entertaining character study, or a compelling thriller, when it feels like it had the opportunity to achieve both. The movie’s ideas and ambitions are bigger than what is actually on screen, however it might be enjoyable for Ballard and Hiddleston fans. While High-Rise has strong redeeming qualities, it just barely passes the enjoyability clearance.