Release Date(s)2021 (August 31, 2021)
Studio(s)Gunpowder & Sky/DUST/Dubai Film (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
The genre of avant-garde, non-narrative, and non-verbal experimental film—cinéma pur, to use the French term—has been around for nearly as long as film itself. Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927) and Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) are early examples. From the standpoint of modern cinema, the genre exploded in 1982 with Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, which was shot on 16 mm and 35 mm film. His director of photography on that project, Ron Fricke, soon expanded into large-format 70 mm with Chronos for IMAX in 1985. Reggio continued his Qatsi trilogy with Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002), while Fricke followed with Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2011). But in 2012, a Gulf War veteran, writer, and photographer named Tom Lowe made his first foray into the mix with the short film Timescapes, which was captured digitally in 4.5 and 5K. He next worked on Reggio’s Visitors (2013) and spent five years as a second unit director on Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time (2016). Now, Lowe has directed his own feature-length entry in the genre, Awaken.
Captured digitally in 4K in thirty countries around the world over a five-year period, Awaken is a visual marvel and a groundbreaking one at that. The film takes advantage of Phantom Flex cameras, which can shoot RAW UHD images at a whopping 938 frames per second, as well as fiber-optic camera stabilization gyros, both of which were originally developed for military use. The result is an extraordinary ability to capture both slow motion and time-lapse imagery with a moving camera. Like Reggio, Fricke, and Malick, Lowe has trained his cameras on both the natural and technological world, as well as humanity itelf in all of its cultural splendor. But because he’s able to keep his cameras in constant motion—not herky-jerky, run-and-gun style motion but rather rather slow, steady, and meticulous movement—the result is that you’re more deeply drawn into the imagery. You feel as though you’re actually being taken on a real journey. And that makes all the difference in the world.
Awaken allows you to truly see what it is to be human, the simple joys and activities we all take so much for granted that we’ve long since stopped paying attention to them. Its living subjects—both human and animal—are depicted in slow motion, so they’re more purely alive on screen, existing, enjoying, always in the moment. We see the world too for what it actual is, though time-lapse photography that sets the clouds into motion like rivers. Stars whirl, auroras dance, plants sway as Sun and Moon alike sweep across the sky. The fast becomes slow, and the slow becomes fast. And when we view our civilization at large from a “God’s eye” perspective—through time-lapse helicopter shots of Los Angeles or Dubai cityscapes at night, for example—not only do you see the usual streaking lights of cars on the highway and jet planes in the air, the camera remains in motion too. In a couple of shots, that aerial camera is actually moving with and at the speed of the cars below, so while traffic in the opposite lanes looks like a blur, other vehicles appear to hover and weave slowly like bees in flight—and the camera focuses on them consciously.
Gunpowder and Sky and Dust have collaborated with distributor Vinegar Syndrome to release Awaken on 4K Ultra HD, and the viewing experience is sublime, even hypnotic. The 1.78:1 imagery is crisp and clear (save for a little motion blur occasionally in time-lapse shots), with lovely fine detailing. The resolution isn’t quite as cleanly refined as it might be had the film been shot in 70 mm or captured in even higher digital resolutions (6 or 8K, for example), but the imagery’s sheer beauty makes up for this, and it’s greatly enhanced by the HDR grade (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 options are included here), which deepens shadows, makes highlights naturally bold, and widens the overall color gamut.
These visuals are matched by a soundtrack—presented here in lossless 7.1 and 2.0 in DTS-HD Master Audio format—that features music by composer Joseph Trapanese, whose work you may be familiar with from Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion (2013) and the animated TRON: Uprising. The score is by turns delicate and sweeping—with soft strings and piano—and more powerfully bombastic, but always hopeful and steadily, rhythmically propulsive, moving the emotions even as the director moves his camera. But the soundscape also features wonderfully subtle and environmental ambient cues—wind, waves, flames, the faint giggling of children, the light call of insects and birds—and these whisper at you softly from the surround channels. The effect is very soft and delicate, but I can tell you that as I was reviewing this film, my cats were as entranced by the soundstage was I was. Liv Tyler provides occasional voiceover narration, but it’s sparing. Optional subtitles for this are available in English, Arabic, Japanese, and German.
The term “special features” doesn’t really apply to a title like this, but the Ultra HD package includes the film in both 4K and 1080p HD on a Blu-ray Disc, both of which add the following:
- Audio Commentary with Tom Lowe
- Location ID Subtitles
- Awaken Trailer (HD – 1:00)
Lowe talks about his inspirations, which include Reggio, Fricke, and Malick of course, but extend to filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott, Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, The Revenant), Akira Kurosawa, Wong Kar-wai, Hayao Miyazaki, Edward Yang (Yi Yi), and other Asian cinema greats, even pieces of music. He shares insights on the technological developments that made the production possible, specific details on the cameras and techniques that make various shots possible, the different locations, landscapes, and cultures seen on screen, and more. It’s a thoughtful track and worth listening to after you’ve watched the film as intended. The Location ID subtitles are also useful for telling you where the imagery was shot, and they’re nicely unobtrusive.
Awaken is a film about being. It’s about what it is to be human, and about the nature of our place in the world. But most of all, it’s about being in the moment… being present, awake, and aware of the wonders around you, both the natural and the personal. Whether you’re a fan 4K cinema, or simply a curious person who’s drawn to the wondrous, Tom Lowe’s Awaken on Ultra HD is very highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt