In titling “Aquarela,” his latest grandiose, sense-pummelling documentary ride, one has to wonder if iconoclastic Russian director Victor Kossakovsky was the tiniest bit annoyed that a certain awards juggernaut from last year’s Venice fest had already taken “The Shape of Water.” That would be the best way to describe what this globe-trotting, at-one-with-the-element enterprise is really about, as Kossakovsky offers a dazzling overview of simple H2O in its shifting array of forms, from the frozen-over Lake Baikal in Southern Siberia to the rains lashing Miami in the midst of Hurricane Irma to the intangible rainbow rising from the tumble of Venezuela’s Angel Falls. A feast of HD imagery so crisp as to be almost disorienting, this is immersive experiential cinema with no firm storytelling trajectory, though viewers can read what environmental warnings they may into its rushing spectacle.
Premiering out of competition at Venice, “Aquarela” may prove the most readily distributable feature yet from Kossakovsky, a prolific cine-poet still best known for 2011’s delightful high-concept travelogue and festival favorite “¡Vivan las antípodas!” Like that film, “Aquarela” matches sincere, open-eyed curiosity about the wider world to awe-inspiring technical virtuosity in realizing it — give or take some dated, spell-breaking musical cues that the filmmaker would do well to rethink. Its natural habitat, of course, is the biggest cinema screen (with the most booming sound system) possible, though the vast viewership that gorges on wow-worthy TV programming like the BBC’s “Planet Earth” would find much to marvel at here.
Among its other virtues, “Aquarela” serves as a persuasive showcase for the sensory merits of high-frame-rate lensing. What made for an uncanny-valley eyesore in non-doc ventures like Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” franchise here proves visually overwhelming in all the right ways: How better to capture water’s rapid, crystalline fluidity of movement than at 96 frames a second? Kossakovsky and his fellow cinematographer Ben Bernhard don’t merely rely on the technology to do all the startling, however, as they jointly compose their images with a keen eye for texture, color and contrast: There’s as much wonder here in the close-up ombré of blues on an iceberg’s underside as in the film’s more literally thundering setpieces.
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Human presence is invisible-to-incidental in most of the sequences, save for the opening on the aforementioned Siberian lake, wherein Kossakovsky’s crew stumble upon a heart-in-mouth crisis. Cars frequently if ill-advisedly traverse the lake’s inconsistently frozen surface, occasionally cracking the ice and tipping suddenly into the waters below: The camera looks in on one arduous rescue mission before catching, minutes later and by stomach-churning chance, another motorist’s fatal plunge in the distance. It’s an opening so unexpectedly urgent as to set the film off balance, though that early, discomfiting note of tragedy lingers even through the film’s less compromised vistas of natural beauty, reminding viewers throughout of water’s capacity for destruction atop its properties as a life force.
The film thaws in more ways than one from that point, examining water in steadily more mobile, elusive forms. In Greenland, Kossakovsky serenely surveys icebergs and floes glinting in sunlight, slicing through the ocean like regal modern sculpture. The pace abruptly shifts for a tumultuous trans-Atlantic voyage aboard a buffeted yacht, perspective shifting between a sea-level view of furiously churning, spraying waves and aerial shots that make man’s attempts to navigate the big blue look all the more puny and vulnerable. The overegged intrusions of rock music from Finnish “cello-metal” band Apocalyptica in this sequence represents the film’s one clanging misstep — all the more glaring given the evocative precision of sound designer Aleksandr Dudarev’s contributions throughout.
From there, we switch to dry land in theory only, as Kossakovsky makes his way to America, first taking in the destruction wrought in California by last year’s Oroville Dam crisis, before sending an intrepid camera down the abandoned streets of Miami’s South Beach at Irma’s roaring, battering zenith. The extraordinary tracking shots that result prompt questions, not for the first time in “Aquarela,” of just what combination of technological ingenuity and crazy human bravado is at work here. By the time we rest on the more soothingly mighty vision of Angel Falls, with its nearly half-mile plunge of water shifting shape from translucent ripple to foaming white column to iridescent atmospheric apparition, “Aquarela” just about earns its lofty closing dedication to Sokurov — to say nothing of its thesis that water is tantamount to a human protagonist in its progression. That’s stated in the press materials, though wisely never on screen: Kossakovsky is quite happy to let his audience go with the flow.