Combustible Celluloid
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With: Liv Tyler (narration)
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Tom Löwe
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 74
Date: 04/09/2021

Awaken (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Live Savor

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Awaken, which will debut Friday, April 9, 2021 on major VOD platforms, has inspired two IMDb users to write early reviews. One says "10/10! Amazing!" and the other says "1/10, So bad I could not believe it."

What is Awaken? It's the latest descendent of that legendary film Koyaanisqatsi, which was directed by Godfrey Reggio, presented by Francis Ford Coppola, and released in the United States in 1983. It quickly became a cult phenomenon, packing the Castro Theatre for an entire week.

A Hopi word, "Koyaanisqatsi" translates to "life out of balance." The movie consisted of cityscapes and shots of nature, sometimes with animals or people moving through in fast or slo-motion. There was no narration and no discernible plot. There was only the circular music of Philip Glass.

Koyaanisqatsi inspired two sequels, in 1988 and 2002. Meanwhile, its cinematographer, Ron Fricke, turned director with his own, similar movies Baraka (1992), and Samsara (2011). (The latter was named the Most Beautiful Movie of All Time in a 2015 YouTube video from CineFix.)

Reggio himself returned in 2013 with Visitors, a black-and-white tone poem on human faces, with a new Glass score. Now the cinematographer from that movie, Tom Lowe, has also turned director and made his debut with Awaken.

Reggio is credited as a producer here, alongside filmmaker Terrence Malick, with whom Lowe has also worked (on Knight of Cups and Song to Song).

Awaken does not tell us, but the press notes reveal that Lowe shot his film over the course of five years, in more than 30 countries, in ultra-high definition 4K and using many sophisticated camera techniques.

As with the others in this genre, Awaken is, as those IMDb comments suggest, both a gorgeous, mesmerizing work of cinematic poetry, and also sometimes boring and frustrating.

It opens with super slo-mo images of women wearing headdresses of leaves, walking towards the beach while carrying torches. The movie returns to them several times as they dance around a bonfire, and release their headdresses into the water.

We see children laughing and running joyously, an old farmer carrying a bucket across a field, and fishermen perched atop tenuous-looking wooden posts in the surf.

There are exhilarating aerial shots, swooping over snow-covered mountains or clogged-up freeways, at great speeds.

A beautiful woman cradles two starfish in her hands while diving underwater. In another scene, we get an underside version of a swimming elephant.

Unlike other films in this genre, Awaken includes narration, credited to Liv Tyler. Her silky voice glides onto the soundtrack only a few times, speaking only a few enigmatic words, little phrases like "point the light to yourself." Yet it seems to fit.

A new music score by Joseph Trapanese (Oblivion, Straight Outta Compton) echoes Glass's early score, gliding from awe-inspiring notes that lift the soul to great heights, to looping, repetitive themes that suggest a circular pattern, life moving in a cycle.

Some shots in the movie appear to be doctored, although it's difficult to say. A long time-lapse shot pointed at the sky through a striking array of tree branches turns from dusk to night, as the stars spin in an arc and a comet shoots across, almost too beautiful to be real.

In another shot, the farmer with the bucket moves in slow-motion, but in the background, birds appear to be fluttering about at normal speed. Is this a camera trick, or perhaps just a trick of the eyes?

One clear section of Awaken is devoted to festivals and celebrations, showing joy and tradition in connection with humans, our many creations, and the relationship of all of it to the earth itself.

So the question hangs over everything: what is the point? Is there a cohesive theme, or a specific order to these images?

Are viewers expected to think about what's in front of us, or simply let our minds drift? Perhaps the answers to all these questions are "yes," but at the same time, perhaps they are the wrong questions. Perhaps there are no questions.

The key to Awaken, as with all the other films in this genre, is that every human will experience the film slightly differently.

Some viewers trained to see cinema only as a narrative storytelling device will be instantly irritated. Other viewers will swim in and out of moments of intellectual reflection or dreamy existence, perhaps just as a dolphin makes a graceful slo-motion jump out of the water and back in again.

And, certainly, some viewers will sometimes lose the thread, checking their watches or thinking about what to have for lunch.

Seen more than once, however, the boring and frustrating parts are liable to change places with the beautiful parts. It could be argued that Awaken itself is as simple, and as complex, as a human being.

Watching it is like having a conversation with someone interesting and wise, and perhaps, at the end of it, we can come away with our eyes a little more open.

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