The Daily Stream: High-Rise Is A Stylish Dystopian Nightmare

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "High-Rise"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Directed by Ben Wheatley and based on the 1975 novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard, "High-Rise" is a dystopian fable about classism, capitalism, and consumerism. The film is set in a luxury residential high-rise building sometime in the 1970s. This place is cushy — you could probably have everything you ever needed without every leaving the building. The richest people live near the top, while those nearer to the bottom are upper middle-class and trying to get a taste of the good life. Eventually the residents start forgetting about or caring about the outside world, and suddenly the high-rise becomes its own tiny civilization. Like all civilizations built on decadence, this one self-destructs violently. 

We follow Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) after he moves into an apartment on the 25th floor following the tragic death of his sister. Laing is trying to piece together his life and instead gets swept up in the madness of the building, having an affair with a single mother named Charlotte (Sienna Miller) and befriending the Wilders (Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss), who barely eke out their existence with their children on one of the lower floors. Robert eventually gets to know the building's creator, the eccentric architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives on the top floor — and then things start breaking down. Class war breaks out between the floors, and becomes violent. Life in the high-rise descends into complete chaos, and Laing is our guide. 

Why It's Essential Viewing

Dystopias are a dime a dozen. Heck, we're living in one. So what makes "High-Rise" so special? The film opens with a disheveled Dr. Laing looking like a character out of a "Mad Max" movie, wandering around the destroyed building with a really cute dog. He then proceeds to roast that dog's leg on a spit while smoking a cigarette, and we flash back three months to before it all went to hell. You'll know whether "High-Rise" is for you within the first five minutes: it's brutally straight-forward and much of the humor is found in horrific, bleak situations. The movie is at once completely straight-faced and sardonic, and while that tone may not jive with everyone, I find something comforting about the matter-of-fact presentation of the end of this microcosm of society.

Sure, some of the characters are absolute sociopaths, and others are like caricatures of the rich, but that in and of itself feels appropriately real. Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously said "hell is other people," and "High-Rise" is perhaps cinema's greatest exploration of that idea. Not only do characters make one another miserable until it escalates into murder, but Laing spends a good portion of the movie driving himself mad trying to fit in. He makes himself uncomfortable repeatedly in an attempt to join the upper echelons of the rich, to understand the struggles of the poor, and in the end, he finds only misery. 

"High-Rise" is a visual feast, and Wheatley relishes in the gratuitousness of it all. Whether it's the Brutalist interiors of most of the building or the opulent apartments of the ridiculously wealthy, it's going to be gorgeous. Even the brutality is kind of pretty, though it's hard to find the beauty in violence. "High-Rise" is sexy, smart, and a little sadistic, but it's a pretty fascinating mirror to hold up to our current reality.