Review: Koyaanisqatsi

Koyaanisqatsi is a 1982 experimental documentary feature directed by Godfrey Reggio. This is a film that was recommended to me with the disclaimer that I might not like it, that it’s sort of a slow and torturous experience and that it’s just a series of moving images without too much to do with one another. So, I went into the film with low and skeptical expectations… or rather, expectations of not really having a great time. However, I actually got a lot from the movie and its story, I found this film to be extremely judicious with a lot more to offer than I expected; some say that “a picture says a thousand words,” and with 86 minutes of clips, this film says more than people could hope to understand. For all intents and purposes of this movie, some could still write it off as a glorified slideshow presentation, but it was one of the most thought-provoking and enlightening movie experiences that I’ve had in quite some time.

Starting slow, this film opens with many shots of landscapes that last 30-60 seconds each; these shots may not pan, tilt, zoom or move in any way at all, and sometimes these shots are rather boring to watch. You might think, “what’s the point?,” and that is the point exactly. The first act of the film is very meditative, showing us clips of landscapes with not much going on, but as we break into the second act, we start to see machines, people, and buildings which start to take up the majority of the film. For the last 4o minutes or so, all we see are people and factories, vehicles and cities; often times, these clips will be sped up into a blur. Seeing all of that is very disorienting, off-putting and even disgusting. Moments of the film like this are a jarring juxtaposition to the slow beginning, and as an audience member, I came to miss the nature and pace of the first act. Even the shots of the sky that are sped up to see clouds fly past are still beautiful to watch, but seeing people and cities sped up is not fun to watch at all.

To emphasize the disorientation and beauty of different parts of the film, the score accompanying the visuals is very powerful. Phillip Glass composed an absolutely mesmerizing score beginning with the song “Koyaanisqatsi” which contains low and slow musical chanting not unlike the native civilizations would have done, the same civilizations that would live in the gorgeous landscapes portrayed on the screen. By the end of the film, the music speeds up and has so much more going on, mirroring perfectly the images we see. I can’t easily describe what goes on in the film, and a lot of it I think it open to a certain amount of interpretation, and everybody can take something away from it that some others may not have noticed.

For example, after the shots of landscapes, we cut to a shot of a skyscraper covered in reflective windows. Because of the glass, we can see the sky and clouds, but we aren’t actually looking at them; we’re looking at this enormous obstruction giving off the façade that it’s not blocking anything. This, to me, is one of the macro-themes of the film. The title is Hopi and has many definitions that the film shows us at the end, but the biggest one is “life out of balance,” which is what the movie shows us is happening in our world right now. The film is not political at all, it’s just observant. There is no slant or dishonesty, what you see is what is happening and it can be quite scary at times. The building in this shot almost doesn’t appear to be there, and there doesn’t appear to be anything wrong, but the way the film is set up and how it evolves from something beautiful, natural and pensive to something wild, unhinged and disturbing further drives home the themes of the film: that life is out of balance.

I could give many more examples, but they would mostly be saying the same thing in a different way and I recommend that you watch this film yourself to get your own existential experience from it. As mentioned a few times, this is a very reflective and introspective film that has a lot to offer, and there are a lot of ways one could watch this in order to have a fulfilling experience. It won’t be for everybody, but everybody should see it. I’m going to give this film a solid 9/10 and a green recommendation! As far as the disclaimer I was given to watch the film, I can say wholeheartedly that I found that that description did not fit my experience, but there are most likely people who will agree “that it’s sort of a slow and torturous experience and that it’s just a series of moving images without too much to do with one another,” but I urge you to at least give it a try and watch with an open and attentive mind. As always, thanks for reading and I’ll see you soon!

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