It's taken four decades for J.G. Ballard's chaos-fueled novel High-Rise to hit the big screen, and in theory Ben Wheatley would be the perfect director to make it a reality. They both subscribe to a certain brand of anarchy in their work, and that turns out to be the problem. There's so much disarray between the source material and Wheatley's direction that nothing ever comes together to form a cohesive story, and while that may have been acceptable on Ballard's page it makes for a movie that is mostly incomprehensible.
There are a ton of fan-favorite actors filling up the screen and watching them interact in increasingly ghoulish ways is enjoyable in a way. Set in an altered vision of 1970s London, the story takes place entirely inside the titular luxury high-rise apartment where the floors are broken down by class system. Imagine Snowpiercer set inside of a building rather than a running train and you'll get the drift. Poor people live on the bottom floor, middle class a few floors up, and the elite, you guessed it, rest comfortably at the top. Tom Hiddleston is Robert Laing, a doctor living in one of those middle floors, and his neutral position is perfect for his rather tranquil temperament. He couldn't be more different from the wild-haired, unpredictable Richard Wilder (a kinetic, mutton chopped Luke Evans), whose lower class family (which includes Elisabeth Moss as his pregnant wife) is constantly impeded on by the rich. And then at the top of the food chain there's The Architect (Jeremy Irons), who designed the building to be a "crucible for change", although his reasons why remain a mystery.
Much of the film remains a mystery, though, including why an outbreak of violence destroys the fragile peace within the building. It isn't long before any idea of rational civilization begins to crumble. The trash begins to pile up, the electricity stops working, and soon people are being butchered in the hallways, pets killed over swimming pool violations, all types of weirdness. Meanwhile, Laing watches all of this with a calm that is disturbing in itself. Although he does find time for the occasional dalliance with the enigmatic Charlotte (Sienna Miller), who has her own shady past.
But none of this matters because we are kept at an infuriating distance from every single character. Detachment from the gory proceedings may be part of the plan and to a degree that makes sense, however it doesn't make for a very compelling narrative. Add to it that Wheatley never makes much of a commentary on class disparity in itself. He's too content to bask in the pandemonium to make any kind of statement, which is unfortunate considering Ballard's story is timelier than ever.
The level of disorder prevents the film from gaining any perceptible momentum, and the result is one of Wheatley's most tedious efforts. It also holds back the actors, who are uniformly great in just about everything else, from leaving much of an impression. None of them truly matter and probably could have been replaced by just about anybody without it making a difference. Disappointing from the floor up, it's hard not to look at High-Rise as anything but a missed opportunity.
Rating: 2 out of 5