Lately Hulu’s algorithm—in the bleak future math problems determine our entertainment choices—has been suggesting tower-based movies to me. Yes, it is a genre: films that take place in the claustrophobic confines of apartment buildings, like the 1993 thriller Sliver, starring Sharon Stone and William Baldwin. That flick was so-so, and the character motivations didn’t really make sense, especially the dashing computer nerd Baldwin portrayed, but it was one of several Hulu has recommended lately that depends upon a high-rise for its setting.
So it was the Grand High Algorithm suggested 2015’s High-Rise, a film both set in and an homage to the 1970s, specifically the dark sci-fi flicks of the decade.
High-Rise stars Tom Hiddleston—the guy who plays Loki in the various Marvel Cinematic Universe films—as Dr. Robert Laing, a young physiology professor who has recently moved into a swanky new high-rise apartment building. The film opens with the high-rise in a state of dystopian chaos, with Dr. Laing roasting a dog’s leg on a spit, before jumping back to three months earlier.
As such, the audience knows that things are not going to end well, but it’s a remarkably short amount of time from high-tech opulence to total chaos and decay. The high-rise in which Dr. Laing finds himself is a concrete, modernist monstrosity, but it’s full of electronic conveniences and amenities, including a swimming pool, a gym, and a supermarket. The tower even hosts an elementary school for the children living there.
The architect of the tower—one of five planned towers circling a central lake, which the designer compares to fingers on an open hand—is Royal (Jeremy Irons), a wealthy eccentric with a grand goal for his development: improving life for those residing within his tower.
It soon becomes clear, however, that Royal’s grand social scheme is deteriorating; indeed, it’s suggested that the social scheme is more of a social experiment, one intended to collapse. The film never states as much definitively, but Royal’s actions—as well as the lack of any outside police interference (one character commits suicide, and the police never arrive or investigate the death)—indicate there is more going on than the audience or the tower’s residents realize. Control panels begin breaking, blackouts become common, the elevator gets stuck for hours on end, and even the food in the supermarket begins to mold and become inedible.
As the situation declines, tensions within the tower grow. Richard Wilder (Luke Evans), a resident of a lower floor apartment—and father of several children, with a pregnant wife (Elisabeth Moss) suffering his radical outbursts—begins investigating the goings-on of the tower, growing increasingly paranoid and deranged. His documentary film-making and erratic behavior catches the attention of residents on the upper floors, who are wealthier and—allegedly—more refined than the low-floor dwellers, and seek to put a stop to Wilder’s agitating.
On the surface, the film is a very basic critique of class; as it’s a British film, and the Brits are notoriously fanatical about class differences, it’s not very surprising. What’s interesting is that all of the classes portrayed are equally depraved in their debauchery. The lower classes of Wilder party hard, engaging in self-destructive drug abuse and sexual liaisons. In response, the wealthy do the same; indeed, in one scene the upper crust claim that they must out-party the lower classes to show them who is in charge! There’s also conflict over communal resources, with the wealthy monopolizing use of the public pool, turning away the tower’s children, which in turn prompts Wilder to lead a children’s crusade to go diving into the pool (which costs Wilder his job as a television producer in the process).
Caught in the middle is Laing, who is literally the middle class. The lower classes like him but don’t entirely trust him; the upper classes tolerate him but don’t accept him as one of their own. Royal—whose name is clearly not coincidental—takes a liking to Laing, and it is to Laing that Royal reveals his long-term plan of building four other towers.
There is a mystery in the film involving Charlotte (Sienna Miller), the film’s love interest, and her fatherless son, Toby (Louis Suc), though it’s not particularly surprising. Laing and Charlotte’s hedonistic relationship is hardly any different than anyone else’s in the tower, though Laing serves as a father figure to Toby, and refuses to go along with a plan to lobotomize Wilder, demonstrating some degree of nobility of character, if not of station.
Ultimately, residents find themselves cloistered within the towers and separated from the outside world, their lives and the tower’s technology going haywire in the process.
As social commentary, parts of High-Rise are a bit heavy-handed, but it’s slightly more subtle than it first appears. It’s not going to appeal to every viewer, but if you’re a fan of bleak, 1970s sci-fi (and I am), you’ll appreciate this flick for the homage it is.