High Rise has all the ingredients of a film that should instantly become one of my all time favorites: it’s an adaptation of a 70’s British sci-fi novel, a biting satire of classism with strong Gilliam and Kubrikian influences, and ends on a sharply pointed “fuck you” at Margaret Thatcher. But despite all that, stylish aesthetic choices, and solid performances; High Rise is dragged down by large periods of incoherence and chaos that confuses rather than reinforces its plot.
That plot follows Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a new tenant in a recently opened all-inclusive 40-floor high rise development. As a doctor living on the 25th floor, Laing falls in the middle of the two extremes that also inhabit the building; the old-money and global elite on the top-most floors, and the middle class living beneath him. The high rise includes amenities like a primary school, gym, pool, and grocery store; which means that none of its residences have any reason (other than work), nor the faculties – as the film goes on – to leave. So when the high rise begins to experience power outages, food shortages, and other problems the building descends into anarchy, dividing itself into class-aligned tribes vying to throw ever more extravagant parties with their dwindling resources and see who can cannibalize the others first.
Besides Laing, High Rise’s other main character is the 40-storie development itself – one of the best realized settings since Hiddleston’s recent residence of Allerdale Hall from last year’s Crimson Peak. It’s cliché, but few words describe the brutalist tower better than oppressive as it stands tall and alone – save for under-construction sister building – over its parking-lot wasteland. Meanwhile, the insides of its various apartments are covered in the same late 60’s/70’s designs that also dress the film’s characters. The final touch is the font that the building’s various signs are written in; it’s the same font used on 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Discovery One.
High Rise’s problems as a film start to creep in at around the same time the high rise’s problems turn from revelry to anarchy. At various points starting about halfway in the film itself begins to indulge too much in the anarchy of the setting, becoming almost dreamlike in its depictions of the development’s downfall. At these points the film drops its dark humor and blunt satire it has in its more lucid moments in favor of flashes and visions of things falling apart with nothing more to add than “confusing, innit?” While the chaos is thematically fitting, it still makes the actual plot hard to follow at times, and it’s too easy to lose track of characters between the moments where they remind us of their in-the-moment motivation.
It would be easy, but ultimately shallow to compare this film to 2013/14’s Snowpiercer. While both are Gilliamesque critiques of classism, Snowpiercer is optimistic, while High Rise is not. Snowpiercer follows the arguably heroic underclass struggling to overthrow the tyranny of the overclass while High Rise has no heroes, everyone falls into the anarchy equally. High Rise also has a cold inevitability running through it, a type of cinematic distance sure that whether it’s luxury condo is a metaphor for a single person or the entire world, we’re all alone, and we’re all doomed.