Some define movie atmosphere as the mood or emotion that a film brings out in its viewers, but for me it all starts with the literal definition, the world around the story that helps the viewer evoke that mood. This weekend a new film called “Good Time” hits theaters and, according to early takes on the film, relies heavily on visuals and atmosphere to capture the essence of its story and that got me thinking about other films that use atmosphere to add to their quality. So I decided to look at ten of the best films or that manage to utilize the world around the characters to capture the audience’s attention and add to the film’s overall message. These are my picks for the 10 Amazingly Atmospheric Films.
For this list I looked at films where the backdrop or setting where essential to the presentation and mood of a story. This is called the atmosphere, the world they live in, that helps establish or build on the emotion and majesty of the story playing out on screen. They can contribute to such feelings as isolation, fear, paranoia, love, sadness, or any other emotion or mood as long as the setting is significant to establishing that aspect of the film.
What atmospheric film do you think deserves a shout out? Let me know in the comments below!
Say what you want about James Cameron’s sci-fi epic, “Avatar” takes full advantage of its setting to establish a sense of wonder and appreciation for nature like few other films ever could. Presenting an entirely new world for audiences to embrace, this cautionary tale sees humans come into conflict with an alien race when they try to mine their planet for resources and presents themes of environmentalism and coexistence. Much of its success was due to its colorful and beautiful backdrop, the world of Pandora. Throughout the film the audience is introduced to different aspect of Pandora along with the main character, Jake Sully, and we learn right along with him just how beautiful and important this world is. His confusion over joining the less advanced society of the Na’vi and his transformation from devoted soldier to heroic leader are all assisted by the imagery and color of the world around him and when things turn dark, and the damage to that world begins to take hold, we as viewers are dropped into chaos and destruction to experience the same despair as the planet’s natives. “Avatar” may have a few issues in hindsight, but no one can ever say it doesn’t take full advantage of its creative and colorful setting to produce an effective atmospheric movie experience worth enjoying.
9. “Life of Pi”
There’s only so much you can do when much of your film is set on a boat, but “Life of Pi” makes perfect use of its limited setting. When a young Indian boy is stranded due to a shipwreck with no one but a tiger from his parents’ zoo to keep him company we join him on an adventure of self-discovery and faith, complete with spectacular imagery to back it all up. “Life of Pi” earned praise for its visual asthetic and while the color and well-designed CGI might be high points of the film from a technological aspect, it’s the emotions and feelings they evoke that make it such a top notch viewing experience. The use of reflections, smooth textures and colors, and night versus day settings bring out so much of the deeper themes of the film showing us sadness, helplessness, and revelations that we, the audience, feel along with the movie’s central character. Even the tiger has a moment of revelation where we get a peek into his personality and mind from a simple reflection. The movie says so much with so little and what’s great is the entire film is told as a story, from one man to another, allowing us to experience an imagined presentation of real events as if we were that other man, hearing this for the first time and trying to put together the pieces of how such events could have looked. As if in a dream, this adventure on the sea packs a lot of emotional depth that would otherwise go ignored if not for its presentation and imagery
8. “Shutter Island”
I was torn between “The Shining” and “Shutter Island” for this list, but I had to go with the later due to the sheer scope of its presentation compared to the more isolated “The Shining”. “Shutter Island” focuses on a detective who arrives at an asylum to uncover the mystery of a missing patient. Along the way the detective, Teddy played by Leonardo DiCaprio, begins to experience strange happenings on the island that teach him that his investigation is much more than it seems. What makes “Shutter Island” so great is the story sees the main character travel all across the titular island, presenting much of the movie in a darker lighting with scenery, characters, and imagery giving an aura of discomfort and confusion, the same core emotions that drive Teddy as he seeks the truth. Every aspect of this film’s setting evokes a darker, more distressing emotion that, in some ways, makes the movie-going experience pleasantly uncomfortable. I remember seeing this film in the theater and being unsure of everything I was seeing and I was personally fascinated with how much I could relate to Teddy’s range of emotions as the story progressed. Even when the big twist of the film is finally revealed the film maintains a disjointed mood and reveals the twist in a tightly packed room with little escape possible that allows the viewer to remain as confused, nervous and unsure as Teddy does. Basically this whole film was built around allowing the viewer to feel exactly what its protagonist feels and keeps us in just as much darkness as Teddy himself. You can feel why his frustration is boiling, you can understand why he is confused, and the presentation and expansive world of “Shutter Island” is very much a part of that.
7. “Blade Runner”
A science fiction staple, “Blade Runner” is the film many in the genre strive to be as it perfectly captured the essence of its mood through atmosphere and its hypnotic setting. Focusing on an officer hunting down replicants who have returned to earth to seek out their creator, “Blade Runner” is dark and brooding at points and bright and colorful at other points to fully capture the state of the world these characters live in. This is an advanced society, but one with hidden demons where everything is not as joyful as it might seem at first glance. The cinematography is fantastic and as we get to learn and see more of this world we grow to understand more about the characters and their struggles from what we are presented about society and the state of existence alone. The weather is also utilized to great effect and while rain in dramatic moments has become nothing short of a cinematic cliché, here it is used to heighten the tension and add to the imperfect and “messy” nature of events unfolding before us. By the end of the film you can look back on the experience and feel like you’ve not only lived in the world of “Blade Runner”, but that you’ve experienced the same emotional roller coaster of its characters. It’s a fascinating game changer of a film that utilized aspects of society that didn’t even exist upon its release to make viewers feels like they were part of the film and even presented a whole new understanding and philosophy of what makes life so precious, a revelation that has made it one of the most beloved sci-fi films of all times in terms of narrative. Many films have tried to capture the same futuristic atmosphere, none have succeeded quite like this.
6. “La La Land”
The newest entry on this list, “La La Land” was considered a visual masterpiece and encapsulated the mood of its music-filled narrative through imagery better than almost any other musical in its time. Even stage to screen adaptations didn’t encompass as much careful cinematography and set design as this film, which was a completely original project. Blending many different styles and themes from the history of Hollywood “La La Land” embodied the many aspects and ups and downs of the search for stardom in Tinsel Town. At times the film is colorful and enlightening, at other times dark and depressing, but each set piece defines the emotions of the events playing out on screen allowing the viewer a look into the hearts and minds of our two hopeless romantics as they struggle to maintain a relationship when their searches for career success pulls them in different directions. The color and lighting and set design are all essential to the story in “La La Land”, but are also important tools that draw the audience in and help us, the viewers, better understand the realities of the lives two very different people have chosen to chase. By the end of the film we get a fascinating display of what perfection would be like for these two and we are forced to determine if they truly found their happy endings or if their lives could have or would have been better in a different reality. In essence the imagery and atmosphere works to make the viewer part of the story as the interpretation and emotional impact of what takes place can be very ambiguous depending on one’s reaction to the setting and presentation.
5. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
If atmosphere requires imagery and setting to pay off then what better film to capitalize on that than a film about the workings of the human mind? When a couple undergoes a procedure to have their lives together erased from their memories we see those memories eliminated one by one as they begin to realize why they were so perfect for each other in the first place. Each memory evokes different emotions with spectacular cinematography and themes making for a powerful, yet subtle viewing experience. Regardless of which memory we are viewing is becomes harder and harder for us, and the couple, to watch them leave and the atmosphere of each setting captures the romance and relative perfection or imperfection of that moment and why it was so special. It’s an incredibly effective journey into the human mind and the depths of both happiness and sadness that would have never been as impactful if it weren’t for great imagery and an imagination to allow the viewer to relate and feel every sting of the memories fading away. While it may not be as flashy as other entries on this list “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is a rare gem that drives its entire plot through atmosphere because if it weren’t for the viewer’s ability to relate and feel for the characters as their minds are swept then this film would simply be a shell, empty of true significance. Thankfully the film was done justice and you just might find yourself more appreciative of the happy thoughts of the past after seeing how much it hurts to give them away.
4. “Sin City”
Sometimes atmosphere is subtle, but other times it’s a deliberate design choice. Take “Sin City” for example. This comic book adaptation plays out like its source material, complete with black-and-white pallet that encapsulates the hopeless nature of the world we have entered. It’s dark, dank, and dreary with no real uplifting elements to it, drawing us right into a world filled with crime, murder, and despair. Like the many characters we spend our time with in the film, we as viewers are given little reason to smile or find any hope in this world we are being introduced to. While its atmosphere may literally be the product of the source material, it translates very well to film capturing the movie’s otherworldly imagery and producing all the right emotions as viewers come to realize this is a world they would never want to live in themselves. Even when hope is a possibility the film remains consistent, driving home the possibility that death may be more peaceful than life in this world. Unlike many other comic book adaptations of its time, “Sin City” was a no holds barred world of darkness and was well ahead of the curve in terms of adding more depressing and deeper elements to its presentation. While we had seen dark and violent comic adaptations before, this was a revolutionary project that literally brought viewers right onto the page to experience what it was like to live in the violent society it presented and while many have tried to emulate it, including its own sequel, few if any have ever succeeded with such perfection.
The film that started a phenomenon, the original “Alien”, along with its sequel, was a masterpiece not just for its creative monster and kills, but also for its magnificent use of atmosphere to strike fear into the hearts of viewers worldwide. Claustrophobia is the name of the game here and while many films bring about numerous emotional responses it’s just that one that really strikes the soul in this horror sci-fi classic. We watch as scientists are picked off one by one by a presence none of them expected and they are in the isolation of space, where no one can hear them and no one can protect them. The constant threat of the unknown and what is lying around the corner makes “Alien” a fascinating horror adventure that leaves even the viewer looking around every corner wondering what could possibly be lurking on the other side. This film practically reinvented the jump scare and by confining the cast to a single ship we get a great understanding of the stakes. There is no escape, there is little hope, and all these people have left is their wit and will to live in the face of a predator like none they have ever experienced before. To say “Alien” was revolutionary might be a bit of an overstatement in terms of atmosphere, but to say that it is a great example of how previously establish methods and approaches could be perfected to produce sheer terror and discomfort in its viewers would be spot on. While many horror movies have been able to produce this same sense of dread, “Alien” gets the nod here because it combined atmosphere with timing and truly dedicated acting to allow the audience to feel every drop of sweat and every shiver down the spine of each victim as they are picked off one by one.
Another space epic that is on the other end of the fear spectrum, similar to “Life of Pi” “Gravity” has a very limited setting, but it takes full advantage of those limitations to do more with less in the best way. The entire film, save for a few select scenes, takes place in space as a scientist becomes isolated following a catastrophe. As she works to survive and find a way home to earth she experiences personal transformations while making her way through crowded spaces and the emptiness of space itself. This film is literally all atmosphere with minimal dialogue driving the action as we are presented with emotions and concepts through pure imagery in this out-of-this-world adventure. The film is beautifully shot and presents a truly breathtaking interpretation of space, but there is a danger in this beauty and a sense of foreboding dread at the unknown and the consequences one wrong move can create. At times the film is claustrophobic due to being within a ship, but even when we enter the mass of space we are presented with the claustrophobia of being within a suit and the uneasy peace of the magnificent surroundings hiding so much mystery. It’s a story that truly dives into the insecurity of the unknown and while the atmosphere may not be expansive, it’s enough to draw out a sense of wonder, hopelessness, and even peace all at the same time allowing us to experience the confusing majesty of outer space on a whole new level.
It seems space adventures make for some truly great atmospheric experiences as the top three on this list are all space-themed films. However where “Alien” depended on claustrophobia and limited space and “Gravity” combined claustrophobia with the wide range of space, “Intersteller” is a massive film that explores the wide reaches of space to evoke some of the most human and real emotions one could ever feel from simply looking at a movie. You could watch this film on silent and still feel everything you need to feel just by the imagery alone. In fact, rumor has it this is a popular pastime of some to do just that. As a team of explorers travels through a wormhole seeking the key to humanities continued survival, we as the viewers are brought on a journey of discovery with some amazing backdrops and set designs and some very deep revelations that drive home what it truly means to be human. The entire journey is one big assault on emotions providing a sense of wonder, tear-jerking moments of fear and love, the anticipation and curiosity associated with the unknown, and, by the end of the film, even a sense of confusion with the film’s ending open to a bit of interpretation as to its deeper meaning and relevance to the plot as a whole. Of course this film is directed by Christopher Nolan so it’s no surprise it incorporates many great visual aspects, but while the director is always able to utilize scenery and imagery and atmosphere to allow his audience to truly feel what his films are trying to say this was a masterpiece that was truly out of this world. There’s so much going on and if you take the time to appreciate it this film might just change your life. I know it sent chills up my spine and still does to this day and none of that would have been possible if the filmmakers didn’t comic completely to bringing it’s setting and backdrop to fruition to compliment great characters, and a touching and very human story.