In Laura Dunn's documentary "The Unforeseen," the rich, dreamy images of butterflies, clouds, dripping water and birds in flight immediately...

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In Laura Dunn’s documentary “The Unforeseen,” the rich, dreamy images of butterflies, clouds, dripping water and birds in flight immediately recall Terrence Malick’s nature epics, especially “Days of Heaven” and “The New World.”

It’s no surprise, then, to find Malick’s name prominently displayed in the credits as executive producer — along with Robert Redford, who makes a brief appearance as a longtime fan of Barton Springs, a Texas swimming hole (and water supply) threatened since the mid-1970s by polluters and real-estate developers.

Redford grew up in Los Angeles but spent summers in Austin, where he learned to swim. Malick’s familiarity with the city and its colorful political history — including the 1994 defeat of Texas governor Ann Richards to George W. Bush — led him to encourage Dunn to create a documentary about what had become known as “the Texas water wars.”

The result is a gorgeous, thoughtful film that is remarkably evenhanded in its treatment of the subject. Whether you’re a cheerleader for urban sprawl or you condemn some or all of it, you’re likely to have your opinions challenged by Dunn’s wide-ranging approach.

Redford, fervently representing the environmentalist viewpoint, can sound like a nostalgia-choked old fogey at times. Meanwhile, the chief “villain,” an ambitious businessman named Gary Bradley, comes off as a sympathetic and even tragic figure.

Dunn calls him “arguably Austin’s most vilified developer,” and he’s obviously leery of the press and the headlines that accompanied his bankruptcy trial. But she developed an on-camera rapport with him that gives her movie a unique “know your enemy” dimension.

Although Bradley turns jingoistic at times, bitterly separating Texans from other Americans and claiming exclusive rights to the land he develops, Dunn allows him to demonstrate how deeply he believes in what he says.

Mixing archival footage with a lively musical soundtrack (Willie Nelson turns up in a concert scene), Dunn covers such a long and varied period in Austin’s history that the movie’s title takes on an almost fatalistic tone.

The opening sequence reveals farmers battling the elements, succumbing to the notion that “nature becomes God,” giving and then taking everything — frequently in ways that cannot be foreseen.

John Hartl: