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Ebb and flow: ‘Aquarela’ explores the power and mystery of water in all its forms

A scene from the film “Aquarela.” (Courtesy of Victor Kossakovsky And Ben Bernhard)

Roughly 71% of our planet’s surface is covered by water in one overwhelming form or another. The mission accomplished in “Aquarela,” from Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky is to overwhelm, and to awe-strike the viewer with the irresistible force of it all.

It’s a pretty interesting nature documentary, as far as it goes. But given its globe-trotting scope and the risky location work involved for the filmmakers, it’s a little strange “Aquarela” goes only so far.

Deliberately, Kossakovsky blurs locales and lets the footage unfurl without the usual identifying locales on screen. In southern Siberia, on Lake Baikal, Russian police officers retrieve cars that have plunged through the surface ice. Some motorists are lucky. “Usually it melts three weeks later than this,” as one says to a policeman.

This opening segment contains disturbing elements of a nature-doc snuff film: We watch as the officers’ attempts to save another motorist from any icy death prove unsuccessful. From there, Kossakovsky, his crew and his super-high-definition cameras travel to Greenland for an epic collage of ice chunks rising and falling in open water. Some of the individual shots here are truly poetic, and a reminder that water never stops moving.

Then we’re suddenly on board a schooner, as its skeletal crew charts a course on the Atlantic Ocean. (You learn the “where” of it from reading about the movie, not from watching it.) The waves encountered by the skippers are staggering enough to act as real-world approximations of the rolling titans in the science-fiction saga “Interstellar.”

A scene from the film “Aquarela.” (Courtesy of Victor Kossakovsky and Ben Bernhard)

You’re always thinking about how many different ways water can kill you in “Aquarela.” During Hurricane Irma, with the wind and the rain whipping empty Miami streets with relentless intensity, Kossakovsky’s camera glides along the thoroughfare with eerie serenity. (I’d almost rather see a documentary about what was going on behind the camera, to get some of these shots.) With minimal dialogue and maximal sensory wallop, the film rolls along.

You can say this of any movie, of course, but some will find “Aquarela” wondrous and transporting, while others may simply wonder why they’re not feeling as transported as the person in the next seat. The film was shot at 96 frames per second, i.e., an extra-crispy digital format. (No format exists commercially at the moment to exhibit “Aquarela” in that same frame rate; I saw it in the best available projection, 48 fps, with Atmos sound for bonus ripples, crunches and aural spray coming at you from every direction.) Throw in composer Eicca Toppinen’s “cello-metal” scoring, akin to the sounds of his band Apocalyptica, and “Aquarela” certainly is some kind of experience.

It’s a Rorschach test. While you consider the ramifications of living in a world where key world leaders actively encourage global warming, the person next to you can simply space out and think: “Wow. Lotta water.”

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