Koyaanisqatsi is a great film that’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. It is usually labelled a documentary for easy categorisation, but it’s anything but. To call it a documentary is kind of a misnomer; the film is free from narration, it’s almost devoid of narrative, and it could even be seen as structureless, in fact Koyaanisqatsi is so far from a factual report that it has more in common with art than film. The brilliance of Koyaanisqatsi is that it can mean what you want it to, and the fact that it purposely excludes narration the overall message is up for interpretation, and depending on who you are you’ll see something different than the next person. If you get nothing else from this movie you can at least go away appreciating it as a piece of visual art. You can for instance watch Koyaanisqatsi and see it as a comment on the ills of industrialisation or the perils of technology, maybe it’s about the degeneration that comes with the advancement of our species, or humanity’s detachment from nature, or maybe it’s about all these things. You could view it and think the complete opposite: “look what humans are capable of achieving!” you might say, or “look how far we’ve come over the years!”. You could just watch it as a time capsule of the period in which it was produced: “weren’t the seventies and eighties brilliant!”. The word “Koyaanisqatsi” actually means “Life Out Of Balance” in the Hopi language so there is an intention to the film, but the definition or the meaning of the title isn’t shown to the viewer until the very end, so up to that point you are free to think and feel what you want.
Koyaanisqatsi is filled with unforgettable imagery and this is accompanied by a beautiful score courtesy of Philip Glass. When these two components come together they create a completely original cinema-going experience, in fact the bigger the screen, the higher the definition, and the louder the speakers, the more impressive the film is. The trailer below doesn’t do the film justice; Koyaanisqatsi is a film that has to be viewed in sequence and on the biggest screen possible, only then do you get the full intended experience. This isn’t something to watch on your mobile device or streamed in poor quality over the internet, it has to take over your senses and it needs your full attention. If and when you watch the film in its entirety, you’ll agree that Koyaanisqatsi is both beautiful and poetic.
This sense of poetry is created entirely by editing, with certain scenes cutting to others and instantly making a connection in the mind of the viewer. There are for instance images of microchips which then cut to a bird’s eye view of a city and this to me makes a comment about life being akin to artificial life, that a creator may have designed our world the same way we have designed technology and robotics and therefore existence may have a purpose or some form of fate. There’s also the various edits between ancient monuments and natural scenery to open-pit mines and electricity pylons which in my opinion makes the point about how we rape the Earth for resources, that we now litter our planet with inartistic clutter and we ignore this blighting of our landscape and prefer function over form and banality over beauty, in fact we create more trivial objects today than we did thousands of years ago all for the sake of so-called progress. The footage of hot dogs moving through a factory conveyor which then cuts to humans on escalators makes a great point about how people are generally a homogenised and conformist bunch, it also shows how people’s lives are similar to a factory line; in a rush, and devoid of quality. It could also be seen as a comment on humans especially the working class being as undervalued as fast food. The scenes in which people are shown walking in a metropolis like ants at high-speed also points out the repetitiveness and pointlessness of day-to-day existence, and the scene of the space shuttle exploding in mid-air and the camera following the debris in slow motion as they fall back down to earth, is a great metaphor for humanity’s longing to be closer to God or even be God. In fact there is a plethora of memorable images in this film that stay in your mind long after the film has finished.
Koyaanisqatsi also makes use of various photographic and filming techniques to add mood or to add weight to certain footage; there’s time-lapse photography for things like clouds, there’s slow-motion for people walking in the street, and the high-speed footage of vehicles is used to great effect especially for the trail of their lights which is similar to using a rear-curtain sync flash in still photography. All these elements create a bigger impact especially when accompanied with the ever changing score, and even though this might sound like too much variance, the film is consistent rather than erratic or jarring. The music specifically, is simply fantastic and it is a major factor in the overall tone and aesthetic. Apparently the score has influenced many contemporary film composers including Hans Zimmer who credits Koyaanisqatsi as an influence for his soundtrack to Interstellar, but for me Zimmer’s work on that pile of overrated nonsense pales in comparison. In stark contrast to tediously clichéd scores created for today’s sci-fi flicks, Philip Glass’ minimalist music is filled with gravitas and personality, the singing of “Koyaanisqatsi” in a deep voice is haunting, the changing instruments from brass to synthesizers compliment the ever changing imagery, and the varying tempo perfectly keeps pace with the footage. The score in fact, is just as important as the editing and the footage in this film, and they form a trio of ingredients that come together to create a feast for the eyes and ears.
On the subject of trios, Koyaanisqatsi like it or not, is now part of a trilogy. Unfortunately the Golan Globus produced sequel Powaqqatsi wasn’t the same as the Francis Ford Coppola produced original; it didn’t have the same tone, feeling, or sense of artistry. It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve seen, but it wasn’t in the same league as the original film. There was also a Steven Soderbergh-produced third film named Naqoyqatsi but for me that was the worst in the series. Powaqqatsi was at least attempting to recreate the style of Koyaanisqatsi, but Naqoyqatsi felt completely unconnected, both in terms of style and content. The third and final movie had a stark and rigid feel possibly because it was shot and or edited digitally (rather than analogue like the first two films) it was also very amateur looking, almost like someone had gone insane with an effects suite and applied every filter known to man. After watching the appalling third instalment, it seems as though Godfrey Reggio, the film’s director has been going frantically through a Hopi dictionary finding words with the suffix “qatsi” trying to recapture the magic of his original work; it would have been better for fans of Koyaanisqatsi if he’d found a Hopi word for “Life Without Sequels”.
All jokes aside, Koyaanisqatsi is a fantastic piece of cinema and art. After viewing the two sequels, the original movie seems like it might have been a fluke, but as a stand alone film it is a work of genius and a thing of beauty whether it was intentional or accidental. The film is dazzling, it’s captivating, it’s engrossing, and it’s completely original. For something made in 1982, it hasn’t really aged, it still looks superb and it still sounds brilliant, it is without a doubt an impressive and important piece of cinema, and its message or messages are still relevant today.
Life Without Balance, Film Without Words.