There's no beauty in the breakdown according to Ben Wheatley's High-Rise. This messy and convoluted adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel paints a dystopian future that finally begins to crumble thanks to class warfare between tenants of a mega apartment complex. While society may seem stable on the surface, collapse is an organic inevitability, something perpetrated by the most indulgent impulses of wealthy and poor alike. Their motivations for violence may be different, but the consequences for both are the same.
Set in what looks like a hazy version of 1970s Britain, things begin pristine enough. Exterior shots position the massive living structure on the outskirts of a major city of industry. Inside the opulent high-rise, we see the gleaming façade of clean lines and posh décor through the eyes of Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a tormented physician still reeling from the death of his sister. He believes the move into a sprawling new suite at the futuristic high-rise will offer a fresh start of sorts.
Liang immediately encounters a host of diverse characters from various social backgrounds that begin to form his impressions of the complex. The building's architect (Jeremy Irons) lives in the decadent penthouse with his snooty wife. Volatile television producer Wilder (Luke Evans) and his pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) live toward the bottom rung. But it's the beautiful Charlotte (Sienna Miller) that captures Liang's gaze and indoctrinates him into the contradictory hierarchies of high-rise life.
Petty disagreements between certain denizens of the building eventually cascade into an all-night party thrown by the lower classes led by Wilder. The upper echelon decides to retaliate with their own bash, eventually leading to a series of brutal conflicts that turns the entire building into a warzone. High-Rise strips away all rationale and reason from these decisions, instead focusing on the carnality and greed expressed by the rich demi-gods on the higher floors and the desperation and rage of the blue-collar families below.
What follows is a series of vignettes that grow dirtier and bloodier with each absurd twist. Sometimes Liang gets caught in the middle, while at others he's merely a disaffected bystander. This leads to a confused sense of perspective. Are we supposed to care what happens to these people? Or just revel in their anarchy? Most of them remain faceless participants in a grotesque sideshow of humanity run amok.
Wheatley, a cult director in the U.K. known for his subversive genre bending in films such as Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers, quickly loses control of the narrative. High-Rise becomes disconnected with any sense of pacing or rhythm, doing whatever it pleases at any given time. The visuals are striking, but there's no substance beneath them.
Much of this has to do with the lack of character development beyond whatever surface traits the screenplay swipes from Ballard's prose. Even Liang himself is simply a cipher with only a Cliff's Notes personality to offer. The only character with any dimension is Wilder, played with insane tenacity by the usually suave Luke Evans.
High-Rise, which opens Friday, May 13, totally disregards normal narrative conventions like cause and effect and exposition, but it's not nearly as experimental as it wants you to think. At times, the film lazily clashes images together for shock value, only to move on before addressing why it did so in the first place. Merely presenting this toxic imagery and selfish characters without substantial subtext or critique isn't enough.
As a result, the film is overstuffed with mixed messages about capitalism, class division and self-preservation. For a far superior lesson on a failed architectural dream, check out Pete Travis' lean, mean, fighting machine Dredd, which does these complex themes far more justice.