A real kick in the mouth, considering every film of Ben Wheatley’s up to this, High-Rise, alongside such examples as The Cell, Stoker and Lost River stands as testament to the unforgiving reality that it really doesn’t matter how much style you throw at something, if you don’t have the substance to back it up. Though I haven’t seen them, the glossy sci-fi setting and reliance on stars suggests High-Rise may in fact share considerably more in common with the Doctor Who episodes Wheatley directed than any of his prior films, which would partially explain my utter dislike of this film, in contrast both to my feelings about his oeuvre as a whole, and the grand majority of audiences.
In interviews for previous films such as Kill List and Sightseers, Wheatley has always made clear that he likes all his characters, despite the horrible things they may do, and speaks with a paternal generosity that feels entirely fitting – none of his previous films have been without pathos, without a vested interest in seeing his protagonists develop, even from bad to worse; High-Rise, to put it simply, doesn’t. It’s ironic that the one film of his that is a veritable social satire displays the least interest in breaking through any character’s archetypal shell. Thus, there isn’t nearly enough groundwork laid in the first act to leave much room for shock, or even surprise, when everyone starts going berserk – the loss of humanity to primal rage and survivalism can only make an impression when there was a minimum amount of humanity to lose.
Sure, High-Rise is “nasty,” but only really on a surface level – any film that involves murder, violent rape, enslavement of a pregnant woman, and the eating of a dog is going to make you shift in your seat – but the film’s alignment with protagonist Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston)’s constant state of ironic self-detachment at it all doesn’t reinforce the cruelty of the events so much as combine with the tiresomely “stylish” presentation to permeate the film with an atmosphere of smugness.
I so, so hope that Wheatley is essentially never given this amount of money or the desire to adapt a book again – it’s clearly bad for him, and really disappointing to me.