To call High-Rise a genre film satirising class divisions and the tyranny of the elite is to make the least-brave possible claim about it. This is so unbelievably obviously a movie about the (very literal, in this case) class war that I think you'd have to be a space alien just arrived on Earth right this minute to not pick up on it. And even then, I think the movie probably makes its points loudly enough and clearly enough that our hypothetical extraterrestrial cinephile would probably pick up on it by the end.

Is this a problem? Subtlety has its place, but sometimes there's joy in a film that just comes out guns blazing to declare with thunderous self-righteousness, "the world is FUCKED, and capitalism is HORRIBLE, and people are GREEDY BASTARDS". There is, in fact, joy in High-Rise, though by the time the Che Guevara poster shows up, unmentioned, in the back of somebody's living room, one longs to take screenwriter Amy Jump and director Ben Wheatley by the hand and gently say, with a sincere smile, "it's really okay, we absolutely get it, and maybe you can go on to just make the movie without saying the exact same thing for the twenty-eighth time in a row".

If nothing else, this fifth feature directed by Wheatley (Jump has been with him for every one of those since the second; they work as co-editors as well) confirms him as one of the most interesting filmmakers in contemporary English-language cinema. Even when it's not working at all as a piece of storytelling, High-Rise is never less than a captivating visual experience, one that finds the director making outstanding use of the array of resources - including legitimately famous actors, for the first time in his career - that he's never had access to before. Most important among those resources are the sets and effects that go into bringing the title character to life. And I agree, there aren't many clichés in the critics' toolkit that are lazier and sloppier than "[city or location where the film takes place] is practically another character!", but High-Rise doesn't just earn that cliché; if anything, the cliché is too modest. The high-rise isn't merely another character, it is arguably the case that it's the only character, and the human beings in the movie are merely the microorganisms puttering about in its digestive tract. Mark Tildesley, the film's production designer, is probably the human being most responsible for any and all of the success it enjoys: both the interior and exterior shots of the high-rise firmly showcase one of the truly remarkable spaces in which any movie has taken place within the last few years: a monster of concrete facades and angry, severe angles. At one point in the film, the haughty architect responsible for the high-rise complex, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), describes the specific building where this film takes place as one finger on the hand described by all his buildings, and that does pretty effectively get at the basic angle and slightly bent shape of the thing, but the terminal point at the top of the high-rise makes the word "finger" seem much too nice: this is a monstrous claw, slicing its way into the sky. Never in my knowledge has any film done a finer job of expressing in purely visual terms the essential inhumanity of the faddish Brutalist architecture which leads to ugly concrete scars on the face of the earth; from outside it looks like a weapon, from inside it looks like badly-decorated prison. It is beautifully hideous, and whatever else does or does not work in this film, that triumph alone is enough to make it worth viewing.

The resemblance to a prison is absolutely not incidental. The story, taken from a J.G. Ballard novel from 1975 that I have not read (my understanding is that this is an unusually faithful adaptation), broadly involves the fact that the high-rise is so self-sustaining, with all the necessary amenities of life available within it, and even much employment, that most of the residents never ever leave it. It becomes a self-contained world in a bottle, ripe as such things are to serve as a metaphor for the Entire Human Experience. And as I said, I have not read the book, which is beloved, but I can see this all playing splendidly well there. Books use words, and words are very good at blurring the line between the concept and the thing. Movies use images and human bodies, and hose are not very good at blurring the same line. In principle, I mean to say, a version of High-Rise that works as a cinematic expression of the themes it wants to express, but I'm sure as hell not able to figure out what it would have looked like, and with Stanley Kubrick dead and gone these 17 years, I'm not sure who I'd suggest to try making the thing. Not, sadly, Wheatley and Jump, no matter how gamely they attack the problem. It's just too damn specific - Royal isn't just a figurehead with a leading name, he's Jeremy Irons; main character Dr. Robert Laing isn't just a vessel for our observations, he's Tom Hiddleston; Richard Wilder isn't just an enraged member of the lower floors revolting against his people's shabby treatment at the hands of the upper-floor people, he's Luke Evans (though, to be fair, he's also Luke Evans giving far and away the best performance I've ever seen him give).

Oh yes, the film is about a revolution: the upper-level people start to live a life of Roman-scale orgiastic luxury, and as the hermetically self-contained high-rise starts to run out of resources, the upper-level people start to plot how they shall steal from the lower-level people, using violence if necessary, and so the high-rise starts to fill up with many dead bodies. I cannot fathom why I'd need to explicate any of this: the film does an extraordinarily, one might with some justice say "tediously" thorough job of that explication.

All of which is to say that try as I might, I can't convince myself that the satire actually plays; it's belabored and, as mentioned, the movie-ness of this movie simply gets in the damn way. And what's frustrating is that the message is the heart and soul of the movie, so not playing is an actively terrible thing, but everything else in High-Rise is not just good, but very good; this is in truth one of the most beautifully-shot movies of the year, with one of the most thrilling musical scores, and some of the most interestingly abstract acting. Laurie Rose's cinematography is a flawless companion to Tildesley's production design; he and Wheatley send the camera gliding through the spaces with elegant, dance-like motions, and he accentuates the color schemes in the sets to great effect; the cool off-whites and earth tones of most of the upper levels are interrupted by the shocking colors of the building's supermarket, itself a triumph of visual geometry in which the camera moves in the direct lines and definite shapes of a Fritz Lang film (and since this whole thing is basically a latter-day knockoff of Metropolis, that makes sense). Hardly five minutes go by without at least one shot that'll just stop your heart cold; my favorite might have been an image of Hiddleston outside the high-rise, in a veritable jungle of grey concrete leaching the blue right out of the sky, but there's no shortage of emotionally revelatory, dramatic images. Meanwhile, Clint Mansell's score puts in a good claim to being the best of the year to date: much of it is toneless atmospheric music, providing a synthetic, chilly background that's often barely even perceptual; some of it is a series of variations on ABBA's "S.O.S.", which emerges as a wholly unexpected and perfect motif across the entire running time of the movie.

All of which is to say: I want very much to love High-Rise. It is beautiful, and moreoever it is beautiful in complex way that reinforces and evolves the film's themes; the way it remixes genre elements in shocking ways, right from the wholly disorienting pseudo-apocalyptic opening scene, is up with the best stuff Wheatley has done. Its message matters very, very much, every bit now as much as it ever did in 1975, no matter how flatly expressed. And I sure as hell do admire it and even recommend it. With the caveat that I honestly don't think this should have ever been a movie, and while every member of this team has given their best effort to redeem this as something essentially and necessarily cinematic, I really don't know that they got there. It is uniquely gorgeous and skillfully-applied lipstick, but the pig is dead and starting to smell.