Nature documentary “Awaken” is a magnificent cinematic experience, reminding us that humankind is part of a much larger narrative.
Press materials for Tom Lowe’s Awaken describe the film as a documentary that explores “humanity's relationship with technology and the natural world.” Although I didn’t realize it until I was halfway through the film, this description set me up to expect a depressing film about climate change. Of course, it’s more important than ever to educate ourselves on the reality of climate change, but Lowe doesn’t use depressing imagery and horrific statistics to send a message about preserving nature. By using breathtaking montages of our planet’s most exquisite sights, Lowe puts nature itself at the center of the story and positions humanity as an integral part of the natural world rather than an inherently destructive force. The visually stunning and immersive documentary sends a hopeful message of renewal while reminding us of our responsibility as Earth’s caretakers.
Awaken explores the wonders of our planet from underwater depths to the expanse above the clouds. With footage from colorful festivals and aerial shots of snow-covered mountaintops, Lowe captures the infinite range of sights and sounds that our world has to offer. Awaken was shot in crystal-clear 4K and filmed in over 30 countries over the course of 5 years. While there is some brief poetic narration by Liv Tyler, Awaken is wordless, for the most part, telling stories through structured montage instead. The rich cinematic collage is brought together by a terrific score by Joseph Trapanese that is somehow both hypnotic and energizing. Awaken is an exceptionally crafted film that marries high-tech filmmaking with low-tech subject matters.
Awaken creates a meditative space where we can slow down and study small details. Almost every shot involving people is in slow motion, giving us the opportunity to appreciate the beauty and dancelike quality of our natural, everyday movements. Lowe seems to slow time itself as he explores the many different things that might be happening around the world at a given moment. He also seamlessly switches between time-lapse and slow-motion shots, maintaining a steady motion of people, plants, animals and light. Awaken has a lot to say about time as both a human invention and a natural phenomenon. Lowe’s manipulation of time in Awaken highlights the beauty of the natural world and reminds us that technology, when used appropriately, can bring us closer to understanding that world.
Awaken is an escapist experience in which time works differently, much like a fantasy. There are numerous elements of fantasy at play within the documentary, both in style and form. Many of the film’s images could’ve come straight out of a fairy tale, like the ballerina practicing leaps in a forest or the woman riding a bicycle through a whimsical village. The dynamic score also sets a mystical and epic tone for Awaken, featuring many passages that would fit in perfectly in films like The Lord of the Rings (although, my mind probably went straight to LOTR because of Liv Tyler’s narration). Awaken is also a fantasy in that it is clearly a manufactured product. Although it features a natural subject matter, the influence of technology is unmistakable - most obviously in the 4K resolution. It’s been said before, but there comes a point where images become so sharp that they just aren’t believable anymore, and the resolution actually becomes a distraction. But in a film that is actually about nature and technology, the effect of 4K resolution simply opens up more doors for thought and discussion.
Of course, any good fantasy involves storytelling. While we’re naturally compelled to assign stories to the people we see in Awaken, it seems that Lowe had a different narrative intent for his documentary. Awaken is a geocentric film, making nature itself a subject rather than an object for human influence. In the first portion of Awaken, for example, the “main character” isn’t the ballerina in the forest or the elderly man in the field, but light. Lowe structures a majority of the shots in this section on the presence, absence, or movement of light. If the montage of images tells any story at all, it’s the story of light’s journey and its influence on different parts of the planet.
By positioning aspects of nature, such as light, as the active characters in Awaken, Lowe departs from the anthropocentric horror narrative we’ve grown accustomed to. To be clear, the film doesn’t suggest that humans don’t have an impact on the natural world or that we should give up our efforts to protect the planet. In fact, quite the opposite. The film reminds us that we, too, are a part of the natural world. We’re part of something much bigger than ourselves, and it is therefore our responsibility to think about the effects of our actions and lifestyle beyond our own lives.
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"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."