Famous and influential at least as much for Ron Fricke's hypnotic cinematography as its ecology-minded message, Koyaanisqatsi has earned something of a cult following, for whom it's a mind-expanding experience. It's many an environmentalist's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola in 1983, Koyaanisqatsi ("ko-yaa-nis-kat-si") has no actors or characters in any conventional sense. No dialogue or narration. No plot. Yet here's a film that speaks with severe beauty in a language that is pure cinema. This 87-minute documentary/reverie is by first-time director Godfrey Reggio, who has said that his intent was to show our society overwhelmed by spectacle, which distances us from what we should instead be connecting with. To do so, he used only poetic, often haunting film footage married with extraordinary synergy to a staggering musical score by Philip Glass. The result is a groundbreaking work of non-narrative filmmaking that's as structured as a symphony. From the lyrical majesty of ancient cave paintings and Monument Valley to mountain ranges and desertscapes that seem utterly unearthly, then to hyper-accelerated city lights and human traffic pulsing and blurring through the mazes of Manhattan and L.A., Reggio's exquisite visual-musical choreography reveals the subjugation of the primal by the techno-modern, all with elegant ferocity.
Koyaanisqatsi aims to build a sense of anxiety toward how humankind remakes its environment, to evoke a Cassandran warning about progress hurtling out of control. By the fourth movement, the ethereally natural gives way to the caffeinated kineticism of big cities and, most memorably, human faces rich, poor, young, old, all atomized and detached in their expressions and actions. Through the film's hallmark time-lapse photography, urban dwellers flow like a surreal bloodstream up the escalators in Grand Central Station. Endless lines of people and automobiles coarse like blood cells mechanically oxygenating an impersonal automated metropolis grown from the arteries of traffic-jammed streets and the empty bones of abandoned buildings in the South Bronx. Woven throughout is Glass's basso profundo opening chants or Tibetan temple bells or driving, repetitive rhythms in choral voices and electronic quick-time. Ultimately the music and canyon walls and skyscrapers and speeded-up storm clouds and earth-moving machines and factories and exploding bombs and imploding buildings all combine to open capillaries in our own heads to meditations on our relationship with this world we've made.
Beyond all its sensory mesmerism, though, Koyaanisqatsi just avoids being a simplistic harangue. According to Reggio, who spent seven years on the film, his point was that we must make choices "between beauty and the beast." As he states in this DVD's featurette interview, he also shows "the beauty of the beast." He gave his film weight and emotional power through what he calls a "direct communion" with the viewer, aiming for the solar plexis instead of telling us what to think. However, it's clear what he'd like us to think. If Koyaanisqatsi is a regressive anti-technology mood piece, then Reggio's presentation is manipulative, deals from a stacked deck, and is in its own way mechanical. But that's not the only interpretation the film is open to. It can just as easily be a celebration of that Reggio seeks to decry. A Hopi word, "koyaanisqatsi" means "life out of balance" or "crazy life." Whether or not the movie exposes a world that is manifestly out of balance, Reggio and Glass's gorgeous liturgy is that rarest of art forms: an avant-garde work with purpose and substance that also succeeds as entertainment. What is inarguable is that it at least strives for a type of grandeur and is technically riveting.
* * *
Part of Koyaanisqatsi's mystique surely is that it defies quick description. Discussing it with someone who hasn't seen it risks understating its virtues because its linguistics are so nonverbal. Saying that it's a "film that can't be described, only experienced" cracks the egg of black-turtleneck-and-beret preciousness, but there you go. Less self-consciously, we can report that MGM's DVD release presents Koyaanisqatsi in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the value of which can't be underestimated. Although the print shows some minor grain on the original stock footage and a little flicker, this is a fine anamorphic transfer that restores the essential vividness and clarity that are so crucial to the overall impact. Even better served is the audio. It comes in a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix that gives Philip Glass's monumental score the room-filling presence it deserves. This is an audio track that should envelop the listener, and the strong surround channels do that well.
Chief among the extras is a new DVD-exclusive, "Essence of Life," a 25-minute exegesis made from interviews with Reggio and Glass. Erudite, informative, and more than a little full of himself, Reggio focuses on the inspirations and methodology behind the film, the influence of his formative years in a monastery, generous praise for his collaborators, how Glass' involvement came about, and some thematic clarifications that might unsettle the film's more narrowly focused enthusiasts. Also here are trailers for Koyaanisqatsi and the two inferior films that finish the "Qatsi" trilogy Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. Keep-case.