Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Is Awaken as much fun to watch high as it seems?

A shot from Awaken. Yes, they are all this groovy.
A shot from Awaken. Yes, they are all this groovy.
Image: Gunpowder & Sky

Google “best movies to watch” on any given day, and one of the top answers autocorrect will offer you every time, without fail, is “… high.” Especially during Our Pandemic Year, one of the most comforting things we as a society have been able to do for ourselves is curl up on the couch at the end of the day, get absolutely toasted, and watch something we can stare at, open-mouthed, in dulled stupefaction and sedated peace. Some people prefer comedies, some documentaries, and some the kinetic rush of action movies. Any of the above can deliver that baseline sense of lizard-brain satisfaction. But for many of us, a key ingredient is the quality of being visually engaging. The more entrancing, the better. Plot, characterization, theme? These things don’t matter so much. What we want is something we can gape at, lids heavy, perhaps while uttering a Keanu-like “whoa” from time to time.

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By those standards, the trailer for the new documentary Awaken looked like it had the potential to absolutely knock my stoned socks off. From the press release: “Shot entirely in 4K over a 5-year period in more than 30 countries, the film pioneers state-of-the-art time-lapse, slow-motion, underwater and aerial cinematography techniques to give audiences new eyes with which to see our world.” They may as well include rolling papers. Here’s a movie with a minimum of narration and a maximum of striking imagery, all set to the soothing sounds of a score that sounds like it could be emanating from the day spa’s massage room. Seriously, just take a look at this beautiful bastard and tell me it doesn’t make you want to reach for a joint:

My mission was clear: Watch Awaken, and report back to film editor A.A. Dowd as to whether or not it was indeed as weed-friendly as it seemed. So last night, I partook of my favorite edibles, waited 45 minutes, settled into my couch with my notepad and a bag of Fritos (I’m no fool), and hit play. By the time the credits were rolling, 80 minutes later, I was able to unequivocally say: Oh hell yes. This is premium-grade stoner viewing material. There is no through line, no explicit meaning to speak of, just a series of images connected only by virtue of being extremely cool to look at. I don’t doubt there is some method behind the madness, some logic to the sequencing. But having also now rewatched it sober, I can assure you, that meaning is nothing you could discern. Better to just lay back and allow it to wash over your senses.

Behold, a brief timeline of viewing Awaken extremely stoned, according to the notes I took:

  • “Now come, fire.” These are the first words uttered by narrator Liv Tyler. In terms of her total contribution, they are also technically among the last, given how rarely she speaks. Girls, holding torches, are walking to the edge of a lake at dusk, in extreme slo-mo, like something out of Midsommar. It is fresh, and I am feeling good.
  • BOOM! We cut to a speedy airborne shot, soaring through clouds and over mountains, all of it awesome. “Beyond the north, beyond the ice,” Tyler intones. “Beyond death. Our moment, our happiness.” What? I don’t even understand that sober. It sounds like a Game Of Thrones reference.
  • Wait, has anything happened in normal time yet? They’re really committing to this slo-mo thing. There’s just an old guy with a bucket standing on top of a hill, and even he’s moving at an infinitesimal crawl.
  • The camera is slowly panning up the side of a tree, spinning as it captures the starry night above. This is trippy.
  • “There is a way.” Oh, Liv Tyler is speaking again! I check the time; it’s been 15 minutes since her last line. We soar above towns and fields as she says, “Beyond the storm. Through the ring of the ring.” Am I high, or is the writer?
  • Slo-mo sled dogs, mouths open, tongues bouncing at a snail’s pace? You cannot convince me this was not made specifically for stoned people. I won’t hear of it. I scan the credits: It was executive produced by Terence Malick and Koyaanisqatsi’s Godfrey Reggio. Everything makes sense.
Here’s a swimming elephant, as seen from beneath. Yup, that’s in there too.
Here’s a swimming elephant, as seen from beneath. Yup, that’s in there too.
Photo: Gunpowder & Sky
  • Wait—suddenly we’re in The Blue Lagoon? It sure looks like it, anyway, with a pair of absurdly attractive young people staring out over the azure water. Man, I barely remember that film. Was it Brooke Shields? Or was that the sequel? Oh, right—Awaken. Gotta focus.
  • Hold on, now we’re at a music fest? Watching more young people wave their phones in the air (in slo-mo, of course)? This just makes me miss live music. How did these Fritos disappear so fast?
  • I miss the silence of the ocean shots. Now we’re listening to something that sounds sort of like Junkie XL’s score for that Alicia Vikander Tomb Raider movie. This is a better movie than that one.
  • Ahhh, there’s some women leaping over a fire in slo-mo! Watch out, unknown women! Danger! They do seem to be enjoying themselves.
  • Oh shiiiiiit, this looks like Cloud City from Empire Strikes Back. Where is this? I want to visit. I wonder if I should watch that next.
  • I think we’re in Tron. Is this what major cities look like at night? I don’t recall ever seeing this sight from an airplane, but maybe that’s because I’m usually gripping the armrests and trying to take deep, calming breaths.
  • Fade to black. Is it ov... nope, those Midsommar girls from the beginning are back, dropping wreaths in the water. Am I dead? I may have taken too much. Now it looks like that Robin Williams afterlife movie, What Dreams May Come. “Point. To the light,” Liv Tyler says. “Yourself, a light.” Oh dear, maybe I am dead.
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It went on like that. I’m pretty sure that, aside from the time-lapse photography shots of day turning to night and such, every single frame of this movie is in slow-motion. It beggars belief—but it’s also the exact speed at which my brain moves under the influence of cannabis, so it’s a perfect marriage. Or at least, it is for me. It’s important to remember that everyone’s high is different. Call it the Diff’rent Strokes rule of getting high: What might be right for you may not be right for some. This was brought home to me, while watching Awaken, by my significant other wandering into the room. After a few seconds of viewing, they turned to me. “I hate this. I hate things in slow motion when I’m high.” I try to explain that I love it, that it matches the speed at which my brain moves right now. Another displeased look. “Not mine.” Fair enough.

You knew the aurora borealis would make an appearance at some point, right? You had to know.
You knew the aurora borealis would make an appearance at some point, right? You had to know.
Photo: Gunpowder & Sky
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But I know I’m far from alone in my weed-enhanced predilection for slo-mo, as evidenced by the mountains of pot smokers who list 2001: A Space Odyssey or Planet Earth, for example, on the countless lists of best things to watch while stoned. Which is baked into the sloth’s pace of Awaken—but also why the trailer doesn’t fully convey why it’s such an excellent experience high. The free associative nature of the scenes is so strikingly idiosyncratic, and the utter lack of connective tissue so stark, that the film relies on nothing more than your unpredictable response to the individual shots to carry you from one moment to the next, following the same elliptical patterns of free-floating thoughts so many of us experience while high. (Plus, the trailer implies you’ll be getting Liv Tyler walking you through all this with her hand-holding words. As I hope the above timeline makes clear, that’s not remotely true.)

Perhaps the best comparison I could make for this film is that it’s the equivalent of a particularly lengthy issue of National Geographic come to glacially paced life, only with all the text removed, leaving just a series of photos slowly moving through time. This is no disrespect to the filmmakers, who presumably are very serious about conveying the beauty of life or the people occasionally being filmed (mostly in the middle act, a notable break from the dominant nature scenes), representing nearly every continent and culture, a veritable Benetton ad of diversity. But there’s not much insight to be gleaned from a camera that simply swoops into the middle of a fishing expedition or street celebration or sporting event or freeway overpass, and passively observes it, utterly devoid of context or sociological illumination. It’s almost like a genteel, eco-tourism version of Enter The Void played at one-fifth speed; there’s merely the sensate experience of viewing, no intellect required because no information is proffered. Instead, it is just straight-up 420 material. Fuck, at one point you just watch fireworks going off for a little while. It’s great.

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This is the new film from DUST, Gunpowder & Sky’s free online sci-fi channel, and they specialize in oddities like this, so I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked. If anything, I may be underselling the stoner-friendly qualities that make it such a pleasing experience for those who, like me, feel their minds move at a glacial pace when high and like their images to crawl along at the same speed. So it pleases me to no end to report that, should you be in the market for a film to watch this 4/20 under the influence of mind-altering chemicals, Awaken is exactly what it appears to be, and is available on all major VOD platforms. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a nap.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.