Anyone who remembers Godfrey Reggio’s 1983 “Koyaanisqatsi” will have some idea of what to expect from Victor Kossakovsky’s “Aquarela,” a cinematic poem about the beauty and power of water in all its forms that will frustrate some viewers even as it enthralls others. Shot at 96 frames per second by the director, serving as cinematographer along with Ben Bernhard, the images have remarkable clarity, and when viewed in an IMAX room their sweeping effect is—to use the word that inevitably suggests itself—truly immersive. But though a message about the deleterious effects of climate change is implicit, the lack of an overarching narrative will put off many.
The film begins with one of its most human sequences: a team of rescue workers laboriously extract cars that have broken through the thinning ice atop a frozen Siberian lake; one driver explains that usually, it would have been thick enough to drive over for another month. As the operations continue, the camera catches from a distance another car as it suddenly goes under, and though the makers handle it discreetly, despite desperate attempts to save the occupants, one of them drowns.
There are other episodes in which humans appears as well. One watches as the two-man crew of a small yacht struggle to keep their craft afloat in the swelling waves of a storm-tossed sea. And elsewhere men appear on the edges of widescreen images of glaciers, merely to give a sense of scale to the immense ice cliffs.
Most of “Aquarela,” however, consists simply of scenes showing weakening walls of Greenland icepack breaking off and collapsing into the surrounding ocean; or the undersides of floes as they sit in calm waters; or the streets of Miami as they’re lashed by the winds and sheaths of rain from a hurricane; or the raging waters that result when a dam is breached; or, at the close, the beauty of the long drop of a Venezuelan waterfall.
There’s a bit of a geographical structure to the montage Kossakovsky has constructed, a movement from Siberia westward until the Americas are reached. But that is hardly of great import. The impression the film leaves is simply of water as something of great beauty, but also of great power and potential danger, with an underlying message that it can change from beneficent to deadly just as is it alters form and function.
The individual viewer must decide, of course, whether such a visual roller-coaster ride is one that he chooses to take. Those who climb aboard, however, will find that Kossakovsky and Bernhard offer some staggeringly impressive images, collected into a sort of hydro-symphony by editors Molly Malene Stensgaard and Ainara Vera, working of course with the director.
The aural component provided by sound designer Alexander Dudarev is no less important, particularly when heard over the IMAX system. A quibble could arise over the music score by Eicca Topinen and the Finnnish group Apocalyptica, which sometimes comes across as intrusive, especially in the frenetic yacht sequence. One might also wonder about the screenplay credit to Kossakovsky and Aimara Reques for what is, after all, a mostly wordless exercise—that opening documentary Siberian scene apart.
But then engendering a sense of wonder is what “Aquarela” is all about, and it succeeds in doing so on a number of levels.