September 24, 2021

Film review: ‘Awaken’ follows the experiential documentary path

New film tracks humans and nature — and a lot more

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It makes perfect sense that the Austin Film Society would be one of the early venues for the new experiential documentary “Awaken.”

It’s executive-produced by Austin’s Terrence Malick, along with Godfrey Reggio, who brought us the 1982 documentary oddity “Koyaanisqatsi,” which used time-lapse photography to show us the patterns of everyday life. It was a documentary suited for that period, especially attuned to those who smoked marijuana and liked to stare at a movie screen and go, “Whoa!”

“Awaken” follows the same strategy. It’s directed by Reggio admirer Tom Lowe, and it uses the same techniques as “Koyaanisqatsi.” Lowe also uses the narrative strategy of Malick, whose “Tree of Life” was distinguished by its use of breathy voiceovers.

“Awaken” has more than its share of these voiceovers, courtesy of the unseen narrator, Liv Tyler. But make no mistake: There’s not much to narrate. This film does not have a plot. Like some of Malick’s recent efforts, it’s more contemplative, exploring what seems to be a view of nature that’s both beneficent and benign.

Still, the cinematography is gorgeous, having been shot over five years in more than 30 countries. In many cases, Lowe focuses on human rituals that help us commune with nature. The opening scene has women wearing fern fronds while walking along a lake. Then we move to snow-covered mountains, and then transition to an old farmer in a field, followed by a ballerina dancing in a forest with moss-covered rocks and waterfalls. All of this is accompanied by swelling music, and if you are a musical purist, you might get a bit queasy. Can we say “schmaltz!”



At any rate, you’ll get to see Buddhist stillness, Japanese forests, Scandinavian countrysides and several reoccurrence of the dancing ballerina in the forest. I personally liked the swimming elephant scene.

About halfway through “Awaken,” Lowe moves on to urban areas and their mesmerizing lights, but not before an interlude that features ominous rituals.

Thankfully, the preachiness about technology is kept to a minimum. And there are some great shots of the New York skyline emerging from a fog bank.

“Awaken” is for a specific kind of moviegoer — the type who says “whoa!”

“Awaken” opens Aug. 27, at the Austin Film Society Cinema: austinfilm.org


Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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