Quick Answer: High-Rise is a parable about the dangers of extreme class and wealth hierarchies. The sci-fi drama starring Tom Hiddleston and based on the novel by J.G. Ballard presents a high-rise building so self-sufficient and appealing that no one need ever leave. Yet tensions rise within the building, stemming from a stark class divide represented in straightforward visual symbolism: the higher up in the high-rise you go, the wealthier the resident. The surreal premise and dark eventual conflict illustrate the instability of class hierarchy and the dangers of a comfort-obsessed materialist society.
High-Rise (2015), the Ben Wheatley sci-fi drama based on the novel by J.G. Ballard, presents a high-rise building that is so self-sufficient and stocked with appealing modern conveniences that no one need ever leave. Over the course of the film, which stars Tom Hiddleston and Jeremy Irons, the characters become so isolated from the outside world that they even stop going to work. Yet tensions rise within the building, the trouble stemming from a stark class divide amongst the building’s residents, which is represented in straightforward visual symbolism: the higher up in the high-rise you go, the wealthier the resident. This income difference leads to harmful repercussions on the less wealthy residents, until the situation descends into outright class warfare. High-Rise uses its surreal premise and its characters' descent into violent madness to present a parable about the instability of class hierarchy and the dangers of a comfort-driven materialist society.
In High-Rise, the self-contained building becomes a microcosmic mirror of an unequal society. The symbolism also recalls Fritz Lang's classic silent film Metropolis (1927), in which the rich and powerful live at the top of high-rises while the worker class lives below in the city's underground. In the real world, it's highly uncommon for people of vastly differing wealth and social status to inhabit the same building. Rather, wealth differences are seen acutely in sought-after or undesirable buildings and neighborhoods within regions. Still, in cosmopolitan settings, the richest of the rich and poorest of the poor can be ultimately living in very close quarters. By choosing to condense this real-life proximity into one building and to represent the wealth divide through the visual symbolism of the higher and lower, High-Rise uses surreal exaggeration to draw attention to the problem of gross wealth inequality in our society.
The differences in class within the building are most immediately apparent in the apartment interiors. When Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is invited by the architect of the high-rise building, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), to visit his penthouse suite, his living space is grander in scale than anything else we see in the film. It is a luxurious, vast apartment complete with an accompanying garden terrace, a “passion project” for Royal’s wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes). The couple are privileged enough to afford luxuries like hired help and even a pet horse. In contrast, Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his wife, Helen (Elizabeth Moss), live in a humble apartment on one of the lower floors of the building, the space representing a common, middle-class family residence. Their apartment is more cramped, and Helen and the kids are shown sharing a bed. Clearly, there is a vast wealth difference between the Wilders and the Royals. Helen even comments, “Things would be better if we could move to a higher floor.” So everyone in the building is aware that the hierarchy of class and wealth is directly tied to (or reflected by) the arrangement of higher and lower floors.
Sienna Guillory as Jane Sheridan in High-Rise (2016)
Residents on the lower floors are routinely treated as second-class citizens. Children playing by the pool for a birthday party are kicked out of the area for being “too loud,” but we later learn that the children were pushed out so that the wealthier residents could hold their own party there. The pool area is not designated solely for the higher-level residents; theoretically, it’s a space for everyone. But because of their wealth and privilege, the rich assume they can commandeer the space for their private use. This doesn’t sit well with Richard Wilder, who decides to take the kids back to crash the pool soirée. The obviously miffed upper crust react poorly to the intrusion. One of the wealthier party-goers even threatens Wilder, saying, “You’ll never work in television again,” highlighting how much the scales of privilege weigh in his favor if he is able to threaten someone’s livelihood over a small inconvenience.
The most prophetic scene reflecting the building’s class structure is the lavish party attended by higher-floor residents that causes power outages on the lower floors, a direct example of the indulgences of the rich causing harm to the poor. The party is modelled on late 18th century France, complete with Marie Antoinette-style wigs and extravagant period dresses. The historical connotations of the luxurious party highlight the connection between the problems amongst the high-rise residents and class tensions in France during the French Revolution era. Just like the French citizens were without bread while the elite were eating delicacies before the Revolution, lower floor high-rise residents are left without power while the building’s elite squander it for their party. The high-society affair assigns the lower floor residents a status of otherness and an identify of less-than-human. The juxtaposition of the building with pre-Revolution France is also a shrewd use of foreshadowing: just as the suffering French people responded to the injustice by making heads roll, the residents of the high-rise break out into a mad, chaotic class war that calls their basic sanity and assumptions of social norms into question. As the sleek, mod-con building gives rise to a strange hunter-gatherer culture, we see not only that class inequality has exploded, but also that the closed life centered on comfort and money — which is strongly linked with rigid socioeconomic structure — has not been sustainable.
High-Rise's class and wealth differences serve as the trigger for the dark descent the film takes in its final chapter. The bleak consequences of the stark divide demonstrate how large gaps in income can ultimately destabilize and destroy the existing social structure. Through its surreal, heightened format, High-Rise makes relevant insights into our society while playing up the theatrics to great success.