Ben Wheatley adapts JG Ballard’s story of dystopian class wars for the big screen in a movie that is sometimes too surrealist for its own good.
Set in 1975, High Rise Follows psychiatrist Robert Laing, who moves in to a new block of flats. Inside the block he discovers a class based social hierarchy, with the upper classes on the higher floors, and the lower classes on the floors below. As parts of the building begin to fail the class system begins collapsing in on itself, as both the upper and lower floors try to out party each other in greater displays of wealth, sex and rebellion. Meanwhile Laing tries to maintain his calm, his lifestyle and his relationships whilst everything and everyone collapses around him.
The visuals are one of the strongest aspects of the film, the art direction must be specifically praised. The film draws from both minimalist sci fi, and Kubrik-like 70’s aesthetics. It manages to be both warm, welcoming and homely, and yet, cold, barren and hostile at the same time, a balancing act that is no mean feat. The camerawork is also to be praised, combining everything from traditional shots, to slow, gliding, advert-like shots and even those reminiscent of early, sharky, hand held TV cameras. The camera work is often changing, but usually feels as though it fits the film at that moment, and leads to a viewing experience that’s as fluid as it is disorientating.
Equally impressive are the performances. Tom Hiddleston does very good work, even if the script doesn’t give him a great deal to work with. The same can be said for Sienna Miller and Jeremy Irons. But the film has some standout performances in the shape of Luke Evans and Augusts Prew. Prew plays Munrow, a cocky new student who is the perfect picture of young arrogance. But the actor who takes the film here is Evans. Who’s portrayal of a troubled, impulsive father is many shades of grey. His lack of restraint make you hate him, but his dedication to a cause makes you respect him and Evans pulls it off effortlessly throughout.
The biggest issue plaguing High Rise is its commitment to both traditional storytelling and surrealism. The majority of the narrative is presented as traditional scene and exposition work. But much of the film plays out in an untraditional, Shape shifting manor. With the unusual visual tangents being a major part of the movie. The intention here is clearly to confuse the viewer and involve them in the madness of the High Rise tower. But the movie never quite manages this, and so High Rise is left feeling more like a series of disconnected ideas than a single concise vision of a story.
another problem the movie faces is its lack of thematic commitment. There are three main themes to High Rise: dystopia, class and excess. Each of these, in the context of High Rise, is fascinating and the movie is clearly trying to say a lot about each. However the longer the movie goes, the more the themes overshadow and undermine each other. The class system leads to excess, but the movie never commits to a truly excessive portrayal. The drugs, sex and drinks are sterile and by-the-numbers, they act more as set dressing than as a shocking catalyst. But the excessive scenes often undermine the supposed class system and the films reliance on a familiar cast of characters within that class system down plays the sense of a dystopia taking place. The film features a lot to think about, but balancing and doing justice to those thought provoking elements is a task that seems just too big for High Rise.
High Rise is a film like no other, it’s a brilliantly smart idea carried off by strong performances. Its visuals are focused and yet fantastically obscure. It’s the kind of movie that needs time to percolate and settle in the audiences mind. But ultimately, despite its numerous strengths, High Rise is a disjointed, uncomfortable viewing experience which goes out with a whimper rather than a bang.
Overall, on a 100 point scale, I would score High Rise: 6.3