When this first appeared around the time of the London Film Festival I wondered whether I'd actually enjoy it when it finally came out. I've never been much of a fan of Ben Wheatley: Sightseers was okay as a dark but silly sitcom, but I wasn't overly struck on Kill List (three meh films bolted together into one) and I absolutely hated A Field In England (unwatchable first year media studies coursework): films to pretend to be impressed by rather than to actually enjoy. Given all the raves and enthusiasm, would this new one make me a Team Ben flagwaver?
As it turns out, no: set in some kind of alternative 1970s retro future, High-Rise is a tiresome and obvious screed about the social inequality, class warfare, the inevitable collapse of a too-rigidly structured society and how rich people are bastards. Architect Jeremy Irons claims he's developed his high rise as "a crucible for change" (yet merely replicates the "toffs at the top, plebs at the bottom" system we've had for centuries): he and his coterie of similarly over-moneyed scum live like Roman emperors in the luxury apartments, throwing decadent parties and hogging the amenities. Meanwhile the oiks downstairs are getting bolshy with unreasonable demands for the rights and services that they've paid for; the power goes out and everything turns into some kind of ghastly post-apocalypic nightmare.
So what are we supposed to make of High-Rise? Obviously it's not supposed to make literal, narrative sense: it's an allegory of capitalism complete with lines like Keeley Hawes' despairing "The trouble with poor people is they're obsessed with money" as she whines about having to pay her miserable housekeeper who has to clean dogshit off the carpets. Our lead (he's not a hero by any means) is neurologist Tom Hiddleston: he starts out as our way into this microcosm, but even he succumbs to the madness, shagging left and right and really leaving us no-one to side with. The other key line is Hawes' "Okay, which one of you guys wants to f*** me up the a***?", which instantly sent me back to a similar line in White Mischief, another rich-people-are-horrible exercise.
Once you've sat through the first half hour or so of this prattling nonsense, you do wish the damned place would just turn into Towering Inferno and catch fire (except the emergency services don't bother turning up: the police only appear briefly and never return). Or parasites would get into the apartments and turn everyone into slavering maniacs like the residents of Starliner Towers in David Cronenberg's classic Shivers (in which the swimming pool is also a significant location in a soulless apartment block). Instead everyone just degenerates into animalistic savagery, and it's neither entertaining, intellectually stimulating or dramatically interesting. It ends with an audio clip of Margaret Thatcher speechifying about capitalism, because hey guys, capitalism is horrible and rich people are bastards. Right?
But I guess I knew I wouldn't love it. Having emphatically not loved any other Ben Wheatley films thus far, it would be too much to hope I'd suddenly settle into his groove. What surprised me is just how much I didn't like it, just how bored I was, just how irritating I found it, just how much I didn't care about anybody or anything on screen. Yes, it looks nice. Yes, it's got A-list stars. Yes, there are a few oddly interesting music choices (a Portishead version of Abba's SOS). And yes, it's probably very heartfelt and important. Is it any good at all on any of its levels? Sadly not. It's frustrating, politically clunky and very, very dull and I liked it less than anything else I've seen in a cinema this year.