This ground-breaking film is basically a non-narrative view of America with time-lapse photography (shot from 1975 to 1982) and amazing music.
The film is rooted in three bold ideas.
One is director Godfrey Reggio’s wish to devise a new kind of sensuous, alluring cinema in which all the key creative partners – cinematographer Ron Fricke, composer Philip Glass, and himself as director – would be equal partners, making equal contributions to the finished film.
Another is his conviction that general audiences will support non-narrative cinema if it presents important ideas in an appealing, unpretentious manner.
The third is his commitment to the message at the heart of the film (and the qatsi trilogy): That nature and culture have lost their ancient equilibrium in the modern era, and may spin out of control if humanity doesn’t wake up to the dangers generated by its technological hubris.
True to its title – a word meaning “life out of balance” in the Hopi Indian language – the kaleidoscopic Koyaanisqatsi presents images of a world rendered incipiently unstable by all manners of human activities.
The film begins with Hopi Indian cave-paintings of humans symbolising a time when people lived much closer to the earth and nature and then we see the Saturn V rocket about to blast off into space to show how far man has progressed.
Soon we see waves and cloud formations and sweeping vistas of desert, rock formations and valleys as we float over some stunning landscapes and fly through thick billowing clouds.
The most memorable sequences use a diverse array of cinematic devices, from anamorphic lenses and freewheeling montage to time-lapse photography and varying camera speeds, to portray the world in fresh, original terms meant to spark fresh, original thinking about ecological and environmental issues.
Reggio announced from the start that this 1983 production was only the initial phase of a quatsi trilogy, all of which would be shot on commercial-grade 35mm film and aimed at a mainstream theatrical release.
The series didn’t continue until Powaqqatsi (1988), and funding problems prevented Reggio from finishing the trilogy until 2002 when Naqoyqatsi finally arrived.
Although all three instalments have admirers, Koyaanisqatsi is easily the most fully realised of the bunch, retaining its power to tease the mind, tantalise the eye and enchant the ear.