Koyaanisqatsi (1982) Film Review

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Koyaanisqatsi, the Hopi Indian term for “life out of balance”, is not so much a movie than it is an experience in visual stimulation and freedom of plot and narrative. Directed by Godfrey Reggio who went on to direct the follow up companion films, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi, Koyaanisqatsi is a series of wonderfully filmed images that are driven forward by a beautiful score from Philip Glass. Obviously inspired by Dziga Vertog’s “The Man with the Movie Camera”, Koyaanisqatsi went on to inspire it’s cinematographer, Ron Fricke, to create similar works in the guise of Baraka (1992) and Samsara (2012).

Reggio has gone on record in saying that he intended for the experience of the film to be one in which the viewer could translate what was being shown to them in their own way, almost creating their own plot and dialogue as the film progresses. Beginning with scenes of landscapes, deserts and rocks, with a slow and looming piece of music over it, it is almost like we are being welcomed to Earth and shown the beauty that exists. The film then walks us forward as we see industry begin to emerge and we see shots of factories and power stations. We then find ourselves in big cities, the gigantic skyscrapers and towering buildings becoming man-made mountains as we witness men and women walking along streets. It is obvious, as the film goes on, that the score goes from being subtle and calm to being chaotic, loud and hectic. From the calmness of the ocean and the mountains to the brash and fast paced streets and roads of highly populated cities.

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It is a beautiful piece of work and the simple nature of being shown images under the sound of a fantastic classical score is very liberating, but it is hard not to translate the images as something more. There are scenes, such as a close-up on a mother and child laid on a sandy beach and the camera pans out to reveal that beside the beach, only a short distance from the sunbathing people, is a towering power plant. The contrast is startling and provides an example of industry destroying our planet. Further images like that of a gorgeous mountain landscape that is dotted with hundreds of giant steel pylons offer further insight that Reggio wanted to acknowledge this destructive nature of humanity in the film. It shows us our planet in a way that is honest and unrelenting and in doing so forces us to contemplate the part we play. The subtle way it does this is what makes Koyaanisqatsi so incredible, and so moving. Ron Fricke’s cinematography is fantastic, though it doesn’t surprise me. I, before seeing any Qatsi film, was lucky enough to watch Samsara on the big screen, an experience never duplicated and one I hold as one of my favourite viewings in a cinema.

I watched the Arrow Films release of the film (of which I will delve further into in a future review once I have also reviewed Powaqqatsi) and the transfer is very good. It is hard not to find many of the scenes’ thousands of images relaxing yet, much like Koyaanisqatsi predecessor, Samsara (Ron Fricke, 2012) there are moments that knock you from your wide eyed hypnosis and causes you to think and digest the sights that you have witnessed. Moments like dropped bombs causing mushroom clouds in their wake, the buildings that are being demolished and fall into a colossal smog of dust and rubble and the after-effects of a disaster as firemen circle burning buildings surrounded with residents, offer a divergence from the scenes of splendour involving nature. I love how the coin flips in the film in so many ways, and on so many occasions, as we are shown darkness and light in various subjects.

When I first saw this film, and in my viewings since, I am left with many emotions. The scenes where we see human beings walking along streets like drones, like ants, using up their environment until it is unliveable before demolishing it and starting again make me wonder where our race is going. Killing and destroying until nothing is left, building machines to do the work for us while the jobless go hungry on the streets, leaving massive buildings empty and derelict while millions sleep without the comfort of a roof above their heads. It is all very hard to stomach, but then we see the wonder of things, the beauty of a smile, the sheer majesty of mountains and oceans, and we breathe away that feeling of concern a little bit. Reggio, along with Glass and others who worked tirelessly to create Koyaanisqatsi, have left behind a timeless film, a chronicle of human error and natural brilliance. It is a moving, powerful and intense experience for those who allow themselves to fall into its grasp for 80 minutes.

Watch the film and decide for yourself how you feel. You might be bored by it and find that you don’t connect with the way in which it speaks to you, but you might love it and find yourself interpreting it in your own way, making your experience of the film unique. Either way it is worth watching, and the Arrow release, which features a book and both Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, is fantastic.

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