Shot in high definition at 96 frames per second — though most theaters will only be able to show it at 48 fps — this eyepopper from Russian director-writer-cinematographer-editor Victor Kossakovsky (¡Vivan Las Antípodas!) is like nothing you’ve ever seen. His free-form documentary on water opens by scaring us to death. The scene is on frozen Lake Baikal in Siberia, in which cars are shown cracking through the ice, while a rescue team labors to save a driver and passenger. It’s a showstopping sequence that reminds you how, when it comes to raging H2O, human beings are unfit opponents.
Kossakovsky and his fellow camera virtuoso Ben Bernhard capture sights that blur the line between reality and fantasy. The filmmakers show water in all its raw beauty, but also as a malevolent force. If you want to know what it’s like to ride Hurricane Irma as it pummels Miami, you’ll find out here. And Eicca Toppinen’s immersive, intrusive heavy-metal score won’t calm your nerves — nor, for that matter, will nature’s own crashing, thrashing sound design. Sure, the doc eventually treats us to the serene majesty of a rainbow over Angel Falls in Venezuela. But as the cameras travel through places as far-flung as Scotland, Mexico, Portugal and Greenland, there’s no losing the awareness of a larger, far more imposing climate-based threat.
Aquarela has no use for charts, grafs, voiceover narration or other contexual shortcuts. What you see is what you get, and that includes glaciers breaking apart leaving chunks of ice ready to rip. There’s no doubt who is starring in this movie when we watch a raging storm overtake a single woman piloting a sailboat. Whether the subject is taking the form of surging waves or making us believe its about to swallow up the cameras themselves, the documentary is a warning that insists attention must be paid. It’d be a calamitous mistake not to listen.