The film is set in a luxury tower block during the 1970s. Featuring a wealth of modern conveniences, the building allows its residents to become gradually uninterested in the outside world. The infrastructure begins to fail and tensions between residents become apparent, and the building soon descends into chaos.
In September 2015, the film received its world première at the Toronto International Film Festival and its European première at the 63rd San Sebastián Film Festival. The film was released in the United Kingdom on 18 March 2016 by StudioCanal. Though a critical success, the film's receipts failed to meet its production costs. In 2017 it was nominated for the Empire Award for Best British Film.
The film opens with Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) living in a ravaged tower block, killing a white Alsatian and spit roasting it.
The film flashes back to three months ago when life was more normal. The forty storey high-rise tower on the outskirts of London, built by esteemed architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), is the epitome of chic, modern living. The upper echelons of society live in the top floors, while more common families live in the lower ones. The high-rise provides its tenants with a swimming pool, gym, spa, supermarket and even a primary school. There is little reason to leave the building outside of working hours and its occupants gradually become isolated from the outside world.
Laing moves into an apartment on the 25th floor, after his sister dies. He begins a relationship with single mother Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) and becomes a fatherly figure to her son, Toby (Louis Suc). He also becomes friends with Richard Wilder (Luke Evans) and his heavily pregnant wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss), who live in a low-level apartment with their children. Laing works at a school of physiology. While he is cracking open a severed head, a student named Munrow (Augustus Prew) faints. Having taken a fall, he is given brain scans as a precaution. The next day, Laing is taken to the 40th storey penthouse to meet Royal, where he finds an opulent rooftop garden and is invited to a party being thrown by Royal's snobby wife, Ann (Keeley Hawes).
The party turns out to be an 18th-century costume party and Laing's everyday suit is ridiculed by Ann and other guests, including Munrow, who also lives in the building. Laing is thrown out of the party and becomes trapped in an elevator during a power cut. Such outages are becoming common, along with water being shut off and garbage chutes becoming blocked, much to the annoyance of the lower-floor residents. During a game of squash, Royal tells Laing that these are simply the growing pains of a new building.
Laing receives Munrow's brain scans, which come back clean. However, still angry about his humiliation, the vengeful Laing tells Munrow that they may have "found something". Another power out in the high-rise leads to a night of decadent partying in the hallways and apartments. A drunken and distressed Munrow commits suicide by jumping off the 39th floor, crashing onto the bonnet of a car. Wilder finds it suspicious that no police show up to the scene and becomes intent on exposing the injustices of the high-rise.
Law and order begin to disintegrate in the building due to the failing infrastructure and increasing tensions between floors. Violence becomes commonplace, food from the supermarket becomes scarce and the building devolves into class warfare between floors. It is implied that Royal has been bribing authorities to ignore the chaos within the high-rise. Feeling guilty about Munrow's suicide, Laing shows signs of mental disturbance, eventually barricading himself in his apartment and settling into the chaotic atmosphere, even having sexual intercourse with Helen.
Wilder, waking up from a fight with upper-floor residents, intends to find and kill Royal, believing him to be the cause of what has happened within the high-rise. Acquiring a gun from the Royals' former housekeeper, Wilder also finds that Charlotte is Royal's aide and that Toby is Royal's illegitimate child. Breaking into Charlotte's apartment, Wilder tortures and rapes Charlotte for information on Royal. The only resident who leaves the building for work, upper-floor resident and television newsreader Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), is captured and killed by a gang of lower-floor residents.
Some upper-floor residents ask Laing to lobotomize Wilder, as they believe he is a dangerous agitator causing the majority of the chaos in the building. After Laing conducts a psychiatric examination, he refuses, saying that Wilder is "possibly the sanest man in the building". Laing is nearly thrown off the building to his death for this, but Royal steps in and saves him. Laing and Royal talk about the failure and arguable success of the high rise, that it is a "crucible for change" and could lead to "new developments", as well as giving the residents the opportunity to escape to a new life. The women at the top begin working on a plan to establish new management of the building, and Helen gives birth to her overdue baby. Wilder manages to make his way to the penthouse and shoots Royal dead after a scuffle. He is then killed by Royal's harem of women, as Toby looks on through his kaleidoscope.
The film ends as it began in the ravaged high-rise. Violence has abated somewhat now that many residents lie dead, as well as many of the apartments in ruin. Laing appears to have gone insane, speaking about himself and to others in the third person and talking to the building. Laing then lies down with Charlotte, reflecting that what has happened will eventually reach the second tower of the high-rise development. The film ends with Toby listening to a radio broadcast of Margaret Thatcher saying that where there is state capitalism there can never be political freedom.
British producer Jeremy Thomas had wanted to make a film adaptation of J.G. Ballard's High-Rise since the 1970s. He tried to make it in the late 1970s with Nicolas Roeg directing from a script by Paul Mayersberg. In the 2000s, Thomas began developing the project with screenwriter Richard Stanley and director Vincenzo Natali, with the film intended as a loose adaptation of the novel.
In 2013, Wheatley started looking into who held the rights to the book, which led him to Thomas. Wheatley has remarked: “The book makes as much sense now as it did then. It was written in the '70s, projecting itself into a near future, but we live in that future now. We’re almost in a new version of the '70s.”
Screenwriter Amy Jump, who is also Wheatley's wife, adapted the book.
Hiddleston's involvement in the project was announced in February 2014 after he was cast in the role of Dr. Robert Laing. Hiddleston had previously worked with Thomas on Jim Jarmusch's 2013 film Only Lovers Left Alive. With Luke Evans and Elisabeth Moss involvement announced that June,
Clint Mansell composed the soundtrack for the film.
International sales were handled by HanWay Films, and key financiers included the British Film Institute and FilmFour.
Principal photography began in July 2014 in Belfast, primarily in the seaside resort town of Bangor, Co. Down.
On 3 July 2014, director Ben Wheatley tweeted pictures of the set. On 6 August 2014, Tom Hiddleston tweeted a photograph of himself from the set seen in character as Laing, together with Wheatley, Luke Evans and director of photography Laurie Rose.
Elisabeth Moss later remarked on Wheatley and the shoot: "I don't know anyone who makes movies like he does... (it was) like if you gave him a bigger crew, a little bit more money, costumes and hair and makeup, all of that stuff that maybe he hasn't had before. It was so fun, he is just a fucking genius and he's so funny."
Prior to production on the film, it was announced that StudioCanal and The Jokers would be distributing the film in the United Kingdom and France respectively. In August 2015, it was announced that Soda Pictures would distribute the film in Canada. The film had its world première at the Toronto International Film Festival on 13 September 2015. It had its international premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival on 21 September 2015. The film went onto screen at the London Film Festival on 9 October 2015, and the Torino Film Festival on 22 November 2015. Shortly after, it was announced Magnet Releasing had acquired the US distribution rights to the film. The film was released on 18 March 2016 in the United Kingdom. The film was released in the United States on 28 April 2016, with a day and date video on demand and theatrical limited release on 13 May 2016.
The film failed to recover its production costs.
The response on the film is polarizing. Tim Robey of The Telegraph awarded High-Rise 4 out of 5 stars, praising the brutality and dark comedy. IGN awarded it a score of 7.0 out of 10, saying "Enjoyably dark and disturbing adaptation of one of J.G. Ballard's best." Kate Wilson of Varsity gave the film a 5-star review, calling it a "masterpiece." Rotten Tomatoes' tomatometer gives it a 61% score based on 183 reviews and an average rating of 6.3/10; the site's consensus is "High-Rise may not quite live up to its classic source material, but it still offers an energetic, well-acted, and thought-provoking take on its timely socioeconomic themes." Metacritic gives the film a score of 65 out of 100 based on 36 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".