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Terrence Malick-Produced Documentary Explains Why Even His Worst Movies Are Worthy of Appreciation

Review: "Awaken" gathers five years of footage from 30 countries, but to what end?


Nearly 40 years ago, Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” set a pulsating montage of modern and natural splendor to an ecstatic Phillip Glass score and was off to the races, with a singular formula of manufactured awe that has lasted generations. Likewise, when Terrence Malick returned from decades of dormancy to heighten conventional narratives with whispery voiceovers and cosmic detours, the ambition was undeniable. Yet “Awaken,” which was executive produced by both men and directed by their protege Tom Lowe, proves that even the most striking collage of worldly images and soaring music can feel derivative without the spark of an idea behind it.

“Awaken” was reportedly shot over the course of five years and across 30 countries, yet all that time and globe-trotting effort yielded little more than a dense clip reel of sumptuous time-lapse photography strewn about 70-odd minutes in search of a single unifying idea to justify the journey. Lowe is an undeniably talented astrophotographer who was been churning out time-lapse marvels for over a decade. His 2009 “TimeScapes,” which centers on the American southwest, found a modest Internet fan base when Lowe fought back against piracy, and “Awaken” certainly makes the effort to widen the scope.

From sprawling aerial photography to sunset beach parties, the movie collects snippets of joy and wonder into such a dense assembly it has barely coalesced on one beguiling image before another takes charge. With Joseph Trapanese’s thundering orchestral score as its guide, “Awaken” travels from Sweden to Bhutan, Japan and Yemen, temples and raves, mountains and skyscrapers. Along the way, it dwells on enough slo-mo maneuvers — a young woman’s balletic dance through the forest, or a bike ride past a windmill — that even Zack Snyder might get antsy.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this brand of euphoric, non-linear cinematic experience, though “Awaken” (which has been in distribution limbo since 2018 and finally hits VOD this week) would only make sense as a pure distillation of the IMAX effect, and even then, the gimmick starts to fade after the first few scenes. Sure, the recurring figure of a man leading his camel through shallow waves, silhouetted against the evening sun, radiates with magical implications about humanity’s never-ending quest that transcend space and time; ditto the rapid-fire overhead shots of neon-lit cityscapes teeming with life.

It’s easy enough to extrapolate intriguing ideas about the inherent beauty of every moment and the rush of modernity that drowns out its appreciation. But Lowe lacks the sophistication to drive those concepts home. For all the extraordinary craft on display, “Awaken” reduces its subject to a series of empty surfaces: Why, for instance, does he sprinkle in a meager Liv Tyler voiceover (which is more like an audio cameo) with empty musings about “our moment, our happiness”?

For all the backlash to late-period Malick movies, such nagging questions about intent rarely arise. The majesty of his “Voyage of Time” documentary maintains a more intriguing variation of the formula that “Awaken” never quite grasps. And while Malick’s dreamy feature-length collections of lyrical exchanges set to wandering voiceovers walk a fine line between poignance and parody, they do so with the precision of genuine artistic convictions. If nothing else, “Awaken” brings Malick’s continuing talents into sharp relief, and shows how even his lesser work benefits from an underlying purpose.

Yet these days, when anyone with a consumer-grade done can turn the eruption of a volcano into a real-life Mordor, “Awaken” proves the danger of mistaking form and function. Lowe’s footage certainly has merit, and shows the mark of a journeyman photographer eager to appreciate every corner of a world that begs for illumination. But the fundamental challenge of this footage-as-film concept is that pretty images never amounts to a free ride. It might feel good to gawk at the wonder and mystery of this strange third rock from the sun, but there’s no real point to that emotional journey without some rationale for taking it in the first place.

Grade: D+

“Awaken” is available on all major VOD platforms from Gunpowder & Sky’s DUST on Friday.

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