Koyaanisqatsi is among my all-time favorite movies. Made in 1983 by Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke, it was the first film of its kind: a commercial-length non-narrative film consisting only of stunning photography and a brilliant score composed for the film. Since 1983 there have been a handful of films in the same style — Baraka by Ron Fricke, Voices Through Time by Franco Piavoli, and even a sequel called Powaqqatsi by Reggio and Fricke. But none of these followups has been able to match the mastery of Koyaanisqatsi.
Koyaanisqatsi is non-narrative; there is no story and there are no actors. That’s not to say that the film is without structure. In fact, Koyaanisqatsi has a very clear structure, and that’s what makes it so much better than its sequel and its followers.
The film has three distinct acts. Act one shows scenes of land and air. It is morning in the American Southwest, and steam rises off of the exotic sandstone formations in monument valley. Light and shadow split the Grand Canyon in two. Clouds roll over mountaintops in fast-motion, giving them the consistency and substance of water.
The first act is a picture of a pure, rugged planet, unmarred by complex life. Philip Glass’s music matches the visuals with a slow repetitive drone; somber voices chant the film’s title while lonely flutes and horns form simple, drawn-out melodies
The second act sneaks up on the first. The once-pure landscape becomes invaded by machines and buildings, slowly and one at a time. Gigantic mining trucks are engulfed in clouds of dust. Explosions throw tons of dirt into the air. Soon there are shots of buildings, cars, and airplanes, all interacting with the natural landscape.
Abandoned tenements are blown up, airplanes bomb their targets, and row upon row of cars, tanks, and buildings appear on the rugged planet. Cities come, with their blood of traffic pumping through their streets, yet there is always some small reminder that these cities are part of a landscape of rock, mountain, and cloud. Glass’ music is still repetitive, similar to the first act, but it is less hypnotic, more declarative, faster and more energetic than before.
In the third act, the landscape is forgotten; only the hustle and bustle of the cities gets the camera’s attention. We finally see people, both in posed portraiture and as ant-like forms.
The portraits are slow-motion medium shots, often of sad, ugly, or haggard city-dwellers. These people have been confronted by a movie camera in their face, and their reactions vary from flattery to bemusement to hostility. The irony is that these people are among huge crowds on public streets, yet a movie camera is an invasion of privacy.
Fricke’s camera also catches these crowds collectively. The action is sped up so that human forms take on an ant-like sense of purpose. The small human figures move about instinctively, working in factories, standing in lines, traveling from A to B. People pour through a train station as neat and orderly as hot dogs through a production line.
Alton Walpole and Ron Fricke’s editing connects all the themes: people moving themselves through high-volume production lines; people behaving as collective, social insects; and the private loneliness of the individuals in this great hive.
Meanwhile, cars zip through the city, their corpuscle taillights coursing through the arteries of the city’s streets. Cars, people, factories, information; everything keeps moving faster and faster as Glass’s music — the same repetitive notes but now frantic and frenetic instead of calming and relaxing — builds to an unstoppable pace. The changing pace of the film is palpable and unmistakable. Walpole and Fricke’s editing and Glass’s music is so effective, you could chart the course of the film by attaching heart rate monitors to the audience.
Koyaanisqatsi ends this emotional ride with one, final cautionary image — an awestruck image in slow motion of a rocket taking off — the pinnacle of human civilization — an achievement made possible only through collective societal effort. After a few moments of soaring, the rocket explodes into a great fireball, and a burning, flying piece of wreckage falls back to earth as the camera watches, transfixed.
Only at the end does the film explain the title; it is a Hopi word meaning life out of balance; crazy life; a way of life that calls for another way of living. The film’s stated message, that modern culture calls for another way of living, is somewhat convincing, although it doesn’t seem to be the most important achievement of Koyaanisqatsi. What makes this film great is its structure, the fact that photography, editing and music alone can combine to form an epic, 90-minute composition that coheres and makes sense.
Koyaanisqatsi is no ordinary movie. It defined a new form of art (which we can call the feature-length, non-narrative film). It has spawned some imitations and homages. But it has yet to be surpassed.