Lake Baikal, Russia
Lake Baikal, Russia

‘Aquarela’ Makes Climate Change Scary

Without a cast or narration, the abstract film ­attempts to convey the urgency of our warming planet. But will it reach enough people to matter?

Lake Baikal, Russia

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The disastrous effects of hot-boxing the atmosphere were once problems for the future. Welcome to the future. And yet many people in the U.S., including its most powerful man, continue to deny that there’s a problem. How can we get the frightening reality across? Have we run out of options? 

Acclaimed Russian director Victor Kossakovsky’s film Aquarela, which hits select theaters on August 16, is a bold, thoroughly weird, high-def attempt to reimagine the climate-change message. Set to a jarring mixture of gut-crunching cello-metal tracks and the sounds of water in various stages of infuriated flux, Aquarela (“watercolor” in Portuguese) is meant to be uncomfortable. There’s no scripted dialogue. Instead, the only human conversation comes in the beginning, when we are placed at the center of a terrifying scene on southern Siberia’s Lake Baikal, where unsuspecting people keep driving their vehicles, one after another, through prematurely thawed sections of ice. 

From there, Kossakovsky’s water world melts. The humans start to disappear. We travel west to Greenland, where the booms of calving glaciers echo like thunder across the landscape; to California’s Oroville Dam, on the brink of collapse during the epic floods of February 2017; to an empty, cobalt-washed Miami in the howling throes of Hurricane Irma. The subtext is clear: earth’s water is immense, and it is angry. 

Aquarela provides a visual clarion call amid a flurry of prestige projects coming out this year, from Leonardo DiCaprio’s hopeful Ice on Fire to Netflix’s Our Planet, an eight-episode documentary that spans the globe, highlighting species and ecosystems imperiled by our warming world. Kossakovsky elects to gradually delete humans from his shots, twisting the traditional narrative that humans will destroy nature. Aquarela instead suggests that while we may be ravaging nature now, the earth will ultimately live on—not us. Without a narrator or narrative, this film is abstract art at its best, a void for unobstructed contemplation of the world in which we live. 

But is a feature-length film composed of only imagery, heavy metal, and raging ambient sound an effective way to raise awareness? Big-budget pictures like Our Planet have at least reached people who might still need convincing that climate change is a present danger. Aquarela’s beauty and novelty succeed in bringing to life the visceral effects of global warming. The question is whether enough of us will watch for it to have an impact. 

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