“Awaken,” debuting Friday on major Video On Demand platforms, is the latest descendent of the legendary film “Koyaanisqatsi,” which was directed by Godfrey Reggio, presented by Francis Ford Coppola and released in the United States in 1983. It became a cult phenomenon, packing the Castro Theatre for a 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 slow motion. There was no narration and no discernible plot — 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” in 1992 and “Samsara” in 2011. (“Samsara” was named the Most Beautiful Movie of All Time in a 2015 YouTube video from CineFix, IGN’s movie and TV channel.)
Reggio returned in 2013 with “Visitors,” a black-and-white tone poem on human faces, with a new Glass score. Now, “Visitors’” cinematographer Tom Lowe, turned director, debuts with “Awaken.”
Reggio is credited as a producer, as is Terrence Malick, with whom Lowe worked, on “Knight of Cups” and “Song to Song.”
Press notes (not the movie) reveal that “Awaken” was shot over the course of five years in more than 30 countries, in ultra-high definition 4K, using sophisticated camera techniques.
As with others in this genre, “Awaken” is a gorgeous, mesmerizing work of cinematic poetry, but also sometimes boring and frustrating.
It opens with super slow-motion images of women wearing headdresses of leaves, walking toward the beach while carrying torches. The movie returns to them, too, 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, there’s an underside version of a swimming elephant.
Unlike other films in this genre, “Awaken” includes narration by 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.” It seems to fit.
A new music score by Joseph Trapanese (“The Greatest Showman,” “Project Power”) echoes Glass’ 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, the farmer with the bucket moves in slow-motion, but in the background, birds appear to be fluttering at normal speed. Is this a camera trick, or perhaps just a trick of the eyes?
One clear section of the movie devoted to festivals and celebrations shows joy and tradition in connection with humans, their many creations, and that relationship to the earth itself.
But the question remains: 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 are “yes.” But at the same time, perhaps they are the wrong questions. Perhaps there are no questions.
The key to “Awaken” and other films in the genre is that every human will experience the film differently.
Those trained to see cinema as a narrative storytelling device will be instantly irritated. Others will swim in and out of moments of intellectual reflection or dreamy existence, perhaps just as a dolphin makes a graceful jump out of the water and back in again. Others might sometimes lose the thread, checking their watches or thinking about what to have for lunch.
For those who see “Awaken” more than once, 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, we can come away with our eyes a little more open.
Starring: Liv Tyler (narration)
Directed by: Tom Lowe
Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes