Essentially an extended Philip Glass music video, Koyaanisqatsi takes a long, hard look at human civilazation through beautifully photographed scenes accompanied by some of Glass’s finest work.
Beginning with stunning natural photography of ancient rock faces, rippling clouds and rolling waves, the film then takes us into human civilization and its impact.
It captures numerous facets of human life, work and leisure, focusing on New York as the camera lingers on shiny glass buildings and deprived housing projects. It takes us through industry, with time-lapse footage of factories, and transport, with an extended sequence in Grand Central Station. As a result it acts as something of a time capsule for 1980s America, with the style of cars and examples of video games clearly identifying its space in time.
The title comes from the Hopi language, meaning “life in turmoil”, yet by focusing on cities the film demonstrates the remarkable precision involved in modern life. The imbalance referenced in the Hopi proverbs which are chanted at various points refers more to the relationship between humans and nature than with society itself.
Director Godfrey Reggio has a brilliant eye for stunning and unique images. A giant moon rising behind a skyscraper. A mother and child sunbathing in the shadow of a nuclear reactor. The cinematography, by Ron Fricke, finds beauty in everything, from traffic intersections to building demolitions and nuclear explosions, the sheer quantity of images giving scale to the extent of human activity.
Yet in spite of its aesthetic appeal, the film acts as a warning, showing the damage humans can do. Through Glass’s imposing score (part of which would later be used in The Watchmen), even the most beautiful scenes are given an undercurrent of impending doom.
All this happens without a single line of dialogue being uttered or a single character identified. By focusing on the poignant imagery it allows the viewer plenty of time for reflection. This makes it a totally unique experience, with its 90 minute running time passing remarkably quickly.