Here's a film with a lot on its mind. Godfrey Reggio's 1988 follow-up to his remarkable Koyaanisqatsi lacks the freshness and impetus of its predecessor, but as before this exercise in non-narrative docu-commentary offers stunning images married to a powerful musical score by Philip Glass. This time the theme is "life in transformation," specifically the technologically advanced northern hemisphere's all-consuming impact on the Third World southern hemisphere. Powaqqatsi seeks to display the differentiation and beauty of life at risk from homogenization delivered by progress and development. Industrialization, exploitation, mass media, and the adaptability of the human spirit are put under the lens. As in Koyaanisqatsi, these slow-motion, ever-shifting montages are at their most beautiful and powerful when they reveal the people unrehearsed, caught-in-the-moment expressions and actions of indigenous adults and children who literally put a face on the film's thesis, such as the small boy who vanishes under the dust of a passing gargantuan vehicle. Individuals are caught in moments joyous and celebratory or broken and brutalized by the kind of labor and living conditions that to the great majority of DVD-viewers are as alien as the far side of the moon. Although Powaqqatsi was filmed in Egypt, Nepal, Hong Kong, India, Brazil, Kenya, and Peru, sometimes it's a shock to remember that we're watching scenes shot on planet Earth, which is indeed part of the point of these films.
However, while Reggio acknowledges the inevitability and transforming seductiveness of modernization with a sigh, when Powaqqatsi's message equates "progress" with the Hopi Powaqq a vampiric sorcerer who thrives by consuming the life forces of others it's a polemic that's heavy-handed and Reggio cheats by stacking his deck far more than he did in Koyaanisqatsi. Reggio's work may be mesmerizing and technically engrossing, but it's also narrowly self-righteous. Instead of expanding our consciousness, he instead seeks to squeeze it into his point of view through a movie that tries to tell us what to think. So if Powaqqatsi isn't the engaging call-to-action it hopes to be, the failure doesn't necessarily lie within the viewer. Nonetheless, it remains an impressive, gut-grabbing feast of editing and cinematography. Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas produced.
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MGM's DVD release of Powaqqatsi looks just perfect in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer. The real stunner, though, is the audio, which comes through super-clean, strong as a bull, and wide open in well-employed Dolby Digital 5.1. Glass fans can turn off the TV and play this disc as if it were one of his CDs and be perfectly happy.
The featured extra is "Impact of Progress," a 20-minute exegesis made from the same recent interviews with Reggio and Glass used for Koyaanisqatsi's DVD featurette. Of course now the densely packed and high-minded discussion more substantive (and ostentatious) than a typical full-length commentary track focuses on Powaqqatsi's spiritual underpinnings, its goals and methodologies, Glass's World Music influences, the working relationship between director and composer, and the third (unwatchably inferior) film in their "Qatsi" trilogy, Naqoyqatsi. Also here are the trailers for all three films.