Elevator Talk: Up and Down in Film

WE HAVE all been in one. That little box that carries you – and whoever you are sharing that space with – up or down.

Elevators are an interesting part of modern life. Less so for their everyday function, but rather the situations they can produce. Mundanity, awkwardness, intimacy, isolation, claustrophobia and fear (for those of a nervous disposition) are just few feelings it can inspire. These feelings – intensified – make for great movie moments.

I recently re-watched Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver and noticed the elevator was a setting for a number of interesting scenes. Trapped in the box, each character’s body language is on show to the audience. Revealing.

In one scene, a menacing-looking Griff (Jon Bernthal) chews gum while he watches lovebirds Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) – blinded by their infatuation with each other. Meanwhile, Baby (Ansel Elgort) and Doc (Kevin Spacey) look straightforward. They are focused solely on getting the job done – and in Baby’s case – getting out.

The humble office elevator is turned into a weapon by American action-hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) in Die Hard (1988). First, the elevator shaft and air vents become a place of refuge for the resourceful cop as he looks to evade the terrorist group occupying the building. Then McClane uses the elevator shaft to fight back, inventively throwing bomb down to his enemies waiting below.

Films like Speed (1994), Smokin’ Aces (2006) and Total Recall (2012) have used the elevator as a setting for elaborate action sequences. The tight space allows for frantic back and forth fighting, which in this isolated box, does not allow for either interference or escape.

Similar qualities make this a viable setting for a horror film such as M. Night Shyamalan’s Devil (2010) and a thriller like Stig Svendsen’s aptly named Elevator (2011).

The claustrophobia of being stuck in an elevator with complete strangers – possibly supernatural beings as in Devil – makes for a compelling hook and uncomfortable watch. As does turning an everyday occurrence (riding an elevator) into a nightmarish situation.

In such a situation, death or murder is the likely outcome. Luckily, the elevator is no stranger to murder in the movies.

Whether it be dulled out swiftly by silenced guns in The Usual Suspects (1995) to send a violent message to Mr Kobayashi. Or deviously and gruesomely as in Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980) and Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992). The former sees the murderer kill in the elevator and then, using the closing doors for escape, hand the murder weapon onto a disbelieving Liz (Nancy Allen).

Unforgettably, a gun awaits Billy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) as the doors open on their elevator in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006). The revealing nature of the elevator doors adds another layer to this shocking scene that would not have had the same effect had they decided to take the stairs.

Another important element of this scene is the tension felt when the two are riding down on the elevator together. These small journeys can provide a great opportunity to build tension. James Cameron does this brilliantly in sci-fi favourite Aliens (1986).

As the elevator descends, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) prepares for battle with the terrifying aliens. Ripley loads her gun while James Horner’s drum score builds. When the elevator reaches the bottom, the music stops and we are left with ominous sounds. Ripley’s face turns from fear to business. She is ready to fight.

Likewise, elevator tension is cleverly built in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). Driver (Ryan Gosling) and Irene (Carey Mulligan) share a lift with an troublesome figure. They exchange an intimate kiss before Driver and the hitman start fighting. Driver is the bloody victor leaving a shocked Irene to slowly back out of the elevator. As she does, Driver’s scorpion jacket faces straight at her – his true nature has been revealed.

Superheroes also have to take elevators. In Winter Solider (2014), Captain America (Chris Evans) fights off a host of hitmen after quipping: ‘does anyone want to get out.’

Despite his webbing abilities, Spider-Man seems to use the lift more than most. He shares an awkward ride with a stranger in Spider-Man 2 (2004). As elevator music plays, the two engage in the kind of small-talk many of us are familiar with.


The elevator is a setting for deep anguish in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2012). Our hero is unable to prevent his love Gwen (Emma Stone) from failing to her death. It is a well-orchestrated moment that produces genuine ­­­­restlessness and loss – something absent in many superhero movies.

Back in Marvel’s hands, Spider-Man gets redemption for that tragic moment in this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. He rescued his classmates from a perilous elevator at the top of Washington Monument.

The elevator is not always so dramatic on the big-screen. In films such as Liar Liar (1997), The Hangover 1 &2 (2009, 2011) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) it provides a space for laughter.

It is hard for the child within you not to relate to Buddy’s (Will Ferrell) excitement over the elevator buttons in Elf (2003). The excitable man, discovering the city for the first time, presses the button for every single floor, much to the annoyance of those with him.

In My favourite Wife, Nick (Cary Grant) leans into the shutting elevator doors as he recognises a familiar face in the lobby.  This classic moment of physical comedy was imitated in Parent Trap (1998), starring a young Lindsey Lohan.

Just as the elevator can help spark laughter, it can provide all the conditions for romance.

For example, Adaline (Blake Lively) and Ellis (Michiel Huisman) getting to know each other between 27 floors in Age of Adaline (2015) and Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer (Zooey Deschanel) bonding over the Smiths on the way to the office in 500 Days of Summer (2009).


In more crowded elevators, Baxter (Jack Lemmon) compliments Fran (Shirley MacLaine) on her new haircut as they trade amusing conversation in The Apartment (1960). In less innocent terms, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) sees a busy lift as an opportunity for sexual thrill in 50 Shades of Grey (2015), feeling up Anastasia’s (Dakota Johnson) leg.

Sometimes the elevator fails as a matchmaker. In Lost In Translation (2004), Bob (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) share two awkward goodbye kisses before the elevator eventually stops. Similarly, the isolation and intimacy of a broken down elevator gives Joe (Tom Hanks) the clarity to break up with his girlfriend in You’ve Got Mail (1998).

One final stop – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Once Charlie has survived the deceptively dangerous tour and proved his honesty, Wonka takes him on a magical elevator trip before revealing the factory is now Charlie’s.

The elevator drifts high above his town. The view from this glass elevator – the ‘Wonkavator’ – speaks not only to Wonka’s incredible invention, but the sweeping future and possibility now ahead of Charlie.

Next time you get in an elevator just think of all the wacky, exhilarating and amusing scenes played out in film. It might just help brighten a mundane routine.

What is your favourite movie elevator moment? Comment Below

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  1. Great article and some fine nods to excellent scenes. I’m glad you mentioned the CA: Winter Soldier lift scene. I actually think that, amidst all the other superhero mayhem of the multiverse, one of the best Marvel fight scenes. Notably due to the confined space of the conflict. Great stuff as usual.

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