“High-Rise” is as impressive as a film can be without quite being satisfying.
Its visuals are full of intuitive touches. The movie is a world unto itself. And all the performances are part of this world’s particular strangeness.
These serious virtues might be reason enough to see “High-Rise.” But movies aren’t an art gallery or even a novel, where you can skip or race through the weaker passages. There are no bad scenes, but, beyond a certain point, the film presents very little reason to keep watching.
Based on the 1975 novel by J. G. Ballard, “High-Rise” takes place almost entirely in a 40-story apartment building. The tower seems to have been built in the middle of nowhere, and so all the basic services are provided in-house. No one needs to leave to go shopping, for example. Residents need only go to the supermarket on the 18th floor.
The weird world of “High-Rise” is interesting. Of less interest are its metaphorical implications. Filmmakers clearly want it to be seen as a study of class tension in Great Britain, where class tensions are more overt than in the United States. The wealthy occupy the top floors in this building, and the middle-class residents live on the lower floors.
When supplies become scarce — as in, when deliveries don’t arrive — the wealthy get what they need, and the leftovers trickle down. As metaphor, this is too on-the-nose and not imaginative. Anyone watching knows where things are heading within minutes. Even if the movie weren’t told in flashback, you’d know this will end in disaster.
Alas, metaphors are often cheap and unenlightening. The value of “High-Rise” has little to do with its message — that chaos ensues when the wealthy hoard everything. The movie’s value is rather in the world it creates.
It depicts a society suffocating from lack of outside contact. Morality is skewed. Everyone is having sex with someone else’s spouse. Everyone smokes, even doctors and pregnant women. People are capriciously callous. At one point, the doctor (Tom Hiddleston) — who is, in essence, the hero of the piece — looks at a healthy man’s X-ray and deliberately makes the man think he has a brain tumor.
The doctor is the building’s new resident, and so we discover the residents’ culture as he does. He finds it all strange, but not as strange as the audience does, which is part of the movie’s strategy of low-key absurdity.
At the very top of the building — in a penthouse apartment with extensive gardens and a horse — lives the building’s designer, Royal, played by Jeremy Irons with a familiar air of exhausted decadence. Mostly, the doctor associates with the people on the lower floors, such as Charlotte (Sienna Miller), the building’s temptress, and Wilder (Luke Evans), a newscaster roiling with hostility.
It seems without purpose, aside from the metaphor, which is less a purpose than an excuse in place of a purpose. Still, this is the best disappointing movie you will see all year.
(At Screenland Crossroads.)
Rated R. Time: 1:59.