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KOYAANISQATSI

Review by Ed Nguyen

Director: Godfrey Reggio
Audio: 5.1 Surround Sound
Subtitles: none
Video: closed-matted widescreen, 1.85:1
Studio: MGM
Features: trailers, interview with director and composer
Length: 87 minutes
Release Date: September 17, 2002

"...life out of balance..."

Film *** 1/2

Have you ever watched a movie and marveled in awe at the scenery in the background?  Sometimes, this background becomes more compelling than the actors up-front mumbling their lines.  Director Godfrey Reggio certainly thought so and came up with a brilliant idea....why not create a film in which the foreground story is removed altogether and the background sceneries are allowed speak for themselves?  Hence, Koyaanisqatsi was created.

Obviously, Koyaanisqatsi is not a conventional movie.  It is a visually experimental film that advances along through a kaleidoscope of mesmerizing images that may or may not share a common theme.  If there is any "message" at all to the film, it is perhaps a comparison between the calm tranquility of the natural world to the accelerated pace of human urban life.  Still, there is no narrative (or even dialogue!) to speak of - probably the closest cinematic analogy would be a vastly expanded version of  the hyperspace sequence in the Stanley Kubrick masterpiece 2001. 

For a long time, Koyaanisqatsi was only available directly from the Institute for Regional Education, the original production company.  In return for a sizable donation to the IRE, consumers were given a DVD of the film.  Not a bad deal, considering the cult status of the film and its general unavailability elsewhere.  Presumably, donations were used for restoration of the first sequel (1988's Powaqqatsi) and production of the second sequel (2002's Naqoyqatsi).  Fortunately, both Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi are now available to the general consumer, thanks to MGM Home Entertainment.

Koyaanisqatsi, though filmed quite some time ago, contains images that are still pertinent today.  The film starts with the launch of an enormous NASA rocket.  At the conclusion of the film, we learn the poignant fate of that rocket as it spirals downwards.  Before the arrival of this scene, we are witness to many montages - some are joyous, some are sad, some are thought-provoking, but all are remarkable.  There are multiple poignant shots of demolished skyscrapers crashing down.  There are images of literally thousands of tanks quietly lined up, amidst some explosive archival footage of weaponry tests.  Interspersed with these shots may be simple close-ups of anonymous civilians going about their daily routines.  Elsewhere, there are quiet scenes of natural beauty, from rolling oceans of clouds to a rainbow of flower fields to a brilliant moon-rise.

The film can be roughly divided into three sections.  The first third of the film is a quiet, meditative one.  It is a travelogue of some of the loveliest depictions of the natural world outside of a National Geographic program.  This portion of the film is calm and relaxing, but once the film's middle third commences, hyperkinetic time-lapse photography begins to appear.  This time-lapse photography is the highlight of the film, and while commonplace now, it was rather revolutionary back in 1983.  Ordinary scenes, such as highway traffic or people moving about, are transformed into a virtual waltz of dazzling colors.  This section of the film has some of the most incredible nocturnal imagery of cityscapes and urban activity that you will ever see.  It is so completely mesmerizing, so utterly  frenzied, that it will enthrall and exhaust you at the same time.  The overall effect is one that equals, if not surpasses, even the best CGI effects that Hollywood can offer (quite a statement considering that all the film's shots are of natural events!).  The final third of the film is a contemplative one, in which we view close-ups of people, young and old, cheerful or indifferent.  It provides a welcomed, cooling-down counterpoint to the exhausting middle portion before the film finally comes full circle and concludes with a shot of the NASA rocket.

Koyaanisqatsi, as the first film in the Qatsi trilogy, is truly a landmark film.  If ever a film existed purely as a celebration of the visual potential of the cinema, this is that film!

(One last word - For those readers wondering about the film's title, it is a Hopi Indian phrase.)

Video ***1/2

A film such as Koyaanisqatsi requires absolutely the best video transfer, and this DVD does not disappoint.  For a film of its age, the video looks simply fantastic.  While the quality of the images varies according to footage used, overall, the film simply glows.  The archived footage which is sometimes used is naturally somewhat grainy (being 16mm) but has been chosen wisely for its visual impact.  As a whole, the pristine transfer preserves Ron Fricke's other-worldly cinematography with no compression artifacts that I could see and only a trace of age markings or dust spots on the source print itself.  From start to end, the film is a virtuoso visual feast of an almost ethereal quality, and the video transfer does the film proud.

However, I do have a few words about the proper aspect ratio for the film, as there seems to be some consumer confusion.  The film was originally shot in an open aperture 1.33:1 ratio, or the normal TV aspect ratio.  The original IRE DVD apparently shows this open-matted version of the film, as do prior home video releases of the film.  On the other hand, the official theatrical release of the film used a closed-matted widescreen (meaning part of the top and bottom of the image is cropped off by the projector) to achieve an aspect ratio of 1.85:1.  The current MGM DVD shows this official close-matted version of the film in order to preserve the director's (and IRE's) original intent.  This decision is fully endorsed by IRE.  Period.

This seems to be a point of very heated contention for fans of Koyaanisqatsi (as it was with the Stanley Kubrick DVDs), so I felt the need to clarify the matter.  Really, it is not a big deal.  More theatrical movies than many people realize are closed-matted to achieve their widescreen appearance.  This is standard procedure and in NO way represents "cheating" on anyone's part to rob viewers of footage.  Most of the time, that extraneous footage contains dolly tracks, boom mikes, crew members, and other things the director never intended anyone to see, anyways.

Of course, if you absolutely must own the open-matted version regardless, do realize that the IRE DVDs are quite rare and out of print.  Good luck at the auction tables!

Audio ***

This film possesses no dialogue, so the score becomes extremely important in supporting the visuals.  Noted New Age composer Philip Glass contributed the music for this movie.  It is a rhythmic score that complements the visuals very well and at times can have an extremely hypnotic effect.  In fact, the connection between music and image is so strong in Koyaanisqatsi that one can scarcely picture or listen to one without imagining the other.  To that effect, the 5.1 surround is quite nice (though I understand that the audio CD of the soundtrack is better balanced).  Nonetheless, the audio provided for the DVD is more than adequate and does justice to the film.

Features **1/2

Original trailers for all three films of the Qatsi trilogy are provided.  Furthermore, there is a 25 minute interview with Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass concerning the concept for the film.  Admittedly, my eyes glazed over a few times during this interview which, though generally informative, is a bit on the dry and overly-intellectual side.  Still, it's worth viewing at least once.

Summary:

Spellbinding, hypnotic, mesmerizing...these are all words that describe Koyaanisqatsi.  Yet, mere words cannot fully describe this unique film.  This is a film that simply needs to be experienced for a full appreciation (a cliché statement, to be sure, but one that for once is absolutely appropriate).  A good recommendation for a meditative evening!