In High-Rise, Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) moves into an apartment in a new, ’70s style apartment complex which looks rather like a gigantic heating vent, one of five such structures built around a lake. The architect of the ghastly concrete buildings, Mr. Royal (Jeremy Irons), explains that structures are supposed to be fingers with the lake as the palm of a giant hand. The metaphor is meant to suggest that humanity is resting in the Hand of God, but, as the society within the tower devolves into anarchy, you can’t help but wonder if humanity isn’t being crushed by the Hand of Technology.
One of the questions I asked myself as a viewer is “why don’t the residents simply leave when things start to get bad?” I think that the answer must lie in author J.G. Ballard’s experiences as a young man. As a boy, Ballard was interned along with his family in a Japanese prison-of-war camp after the invasion of Shanghai in World War II. The surreality of the war zone and the sudden collapse of a well-ordered society is a recurring motif throughout his fiction.
Viewed through that prism, the high-rise of the title is a prison camp, one that people are confined to by society. Like prisoners, they can leave to work, but they return to their cells every night. Their lives are dominated by the dysfunctional realities of the camp. In the movie, it’s not clear why basic services begin to break down, but as they do, the prisoners are not able (or willing) to take any effective action to resolve the situation. The residents break into factions who then war against one another.
If there are any heroes in this picture, it is the women, perhaps because as women, they are not part of the power structure. It is the women who band together to take care of the children and help each other. By contrast, the men are either fending for themselves or conducting various acts of violence.