Films rarely pluck at my emotional strings. I don’t know quite what it is—this admission of guilt may in fact be entirely normal and may be common to others—but I can’t remember ever being driven to tears watching a movie, not even by the most heart wrenching pictures. I have not yet found a horror film that can frighten me, and I have long given up fielding suggestions for supposedly ‘scary’ films that might put a jolt in me. I do wish I could jump at Japanese horror films like The Ring, or be traumatized by the likes of The Exorcist, but at this point I’ve decided it’s an unlikely and dubious ambition. But this inability to soak in a movie does have one advantage: it makes the atypical film, the film that does move me, all the more striking.
One such movie is Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Solaris. Like no other, Solaris inspires incredible feelings of isolation, loneliness, and vulnerability. In some respects I might even call it a frightening film, or at the very least a chilling film.
In essence a science fiction movie, Solaris’ plot will be familiar to those who have read the book by Stanislaw Lem upon which the film is based or the 1972 adaptation of Lem’s work directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Chris, a psychologist played by George Clooney, is asked to board a small reconnaissance ship that is scoping out the planet Solaris. The ship’s crew has been behaving erratically ever since entering the planet’s orbit. Some crew members have even disappeared. Upon boarding the ship Chris begins hallucinating and experiencing memory loss, and strange things occur—his deceased girlfriend suddenly appears on the vessel and is, by all accounts, real and alive again.
The film’s incredible weight stems from Soderbergh’s use of what are essentially ambient effects, specifically sound and camera work, two facets of filmmaking that tend to lie dormant in the background, usually giving way to the narrative and the acting and the events onscreen. Solaris would seem to be no exception, but it’s the subtle effects that Soderbergh relies on to foster uneasiness and anxiety in his audience.
So much of it has to do with sound. There’s a great deal of miscellaneous noise in Solaris, mostly white noise. Hearing white noise is rare in movies, passing as either unnoticeable or unintentional in the pictures in which it is audible. But white noise is omnipresent here, and it is constant, not even dipping appropriately at dramatic moments or when music kicks in. It is everywhere, from Chris’ apartment to the reconnaissance ship, and it sticks like a shadow, looming over the film, dipping in and out of our consciousness. Like real white noise we notice it in some spots and then forget about it in others, but it is always there. There’s no moment of pure silence. Surprisingly, it becomes strenuous—never in a bad or off-putting way—but we become acutely aware of how noisy the film is. The din instills a suitable level of anxiety in us throughout and then, quite brilliantly, the white noise disappears in the film’s closing scene. The setting is utterly innocuous, the camera fixed on Clooney, and suddenly we are without that background filler and in the space of a few seconds, for no logical reason, the film becomes scary. It’s not because of anything onscreen. It’s the silence that frightens us.
Accompanying that vapid backing track is Cliff Martinez’s ambient score. ( Check out a sample across YouTube. Solaris’ soundtrack is well worth purchasing if you enjoy ambient music; I’ve found it to be good company while reading particularly dramatic books.) Martinez utilizes eerie electronic chimes that, given the context, make one feel as if he is being cast off into space, to be alone and forgotten forever. The score floats in and out but is most prominent when Soderbergh cuts to an exterior shot of the planet Solaris. Its atmospheric gasses whip around its surface, lending a certain pulsating effect to the planet. It looks as and feels as if Solaris is alive, and Soderbergh’s blocking of the planet would seem to hint at that: from the outset it is shown up close, hardly fitting the frame, and as the film progresses the camera’s viewpoint sinks further into the pinkish air.
Soderbergh’s camera direction contributes just as much to the film’s impact as the aural effects do. The camerawork is noticeably still, almost Kurosawa- or Kitano-esque in styling. Movement is proscribed until necessary, and there are more tracking shots of characters than there are pans. The director’s still shots are lengthy and severe, not to Kurosawa-type extremes of five minute-long idle shots, but enough to grow a little claustrophobic and stifling, especially with the tight confines of the ship. The only long shots are in cramped spaces where there’s little room to begin with. The camera closes in on us. There’s even vignetting in some sequences ( where the periphery of the frame is blacked out) causing the sensation that we’ve lost all vision at the top of our eyes.
The overwhelming ambiance layered atop the film is constructed using only sound and sight. We might not lend a thought to it—most people ignore background noise and camera movement in films unless they are made unmistakably obvious—but all of those cogs certainly turn on a subconscious level. On its face Solaris shouldn’t be as arresting as it is; after all, it’s only a story about love and loss, and how many hundreds of unaffecting movies with those themes are released every year? Rather, here the loneliness inherent to this picture comes from the masterful execution of techniques all too often thrown by the wayside, and the result is quite brilliant.
Soderbergh employs a narrative effect tangential to this that that should be mentioned, if only because it is as thoughtful as the techniques noted here, and it also works on something like a subconscious level. Solaris takes place in the far future, and Soderbergh appears well aware that most futuristic science fiction films are set in a dystopian world— Ghost in the Shell, Blade Runner to cite but a few. He lifts the trappings of those films and patches them onto Solaris. There is no evidence that Solaris takes place in a dystopia, but all the basic clues that we are looking for, clues established in the likes of Blade Runner, show up here: the sequences set on Earth take place in what feels like a large, industrial city; it’s always raining; it’s always nighttime; interiors are dimly lit; the lighting is all artificial, typically neon. Again, Solaris is not a dystopian film—it only matters that the vibe of a dystopian film is there, a vibe that we pick up on subconsciously, and that must escalate the main feeling Soderbergh is going for.
Films that exploit techniques other than narrative and acting are so occasional that movies like Solaris, movies that place an emphasis on what we hear and how what we see makes us feel, have become unusual, and certainly exceptional. It is certainly a joy when a film really strikes a chord with you. Solaris seems almost inevitable in this respect. Watching this film, it does feel as if the planet Solaris is swallowing us just as it is swallowing the ship and its crew. Perhaps, for the film’s two hours, it really does.