Blu-ray Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen and Michael Jacobson

Director: Godfrey Reggio
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 274 minutes
Release Date:  December 11, 2012


"...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, all of the films are now available on Blu-ray, thanks to this terrific new set from Criterion.

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.)


"...life in transformation..."

Film ***

In 1983, filmmaker Godfrey Reggio released the avant-garde film Koyaanisqatsi.  Featuring a dazzling array of alternatively mesmerizing and soothing images coupled to Philip Glass's New Age score, the film was hailed as one of the most remarkable and original independent productions of the time.  Reggio's intent, however, was not to make just one film; he envisioned a trilogy of films revolving around common themes of life and the inevitability of change.  So, Koyaanisqatsi was only the first installment of a planned trilogy.

In 1988, the second part of the qatsi trilogy arrived.  Entitled Powaqqatsi, the sequel was an experimental film that used a flood of images as commentary on the progress of contemporary human existence.  Whereas the first film concentrated upon the dichotomy between the natural world and the industrial setting of Western cultures, Powaqqatsi instead explored a more impoverished world setting.  If Koyaanisqatsi was a film about the northern hemisphere and the alienating effect of its technology and capitalistic societies, then Powaqqatsi could be considered a film of the southern hemisphere and its more traditional people and ways of life.

Today, watching Powaqqatsi is akin to watching an episode of National Geographic, or, as Reggio describes it, in the spirit of "documentary engagement of the subject."  The film can be divided into two parts.  The first half focuses upon people in balance with traditions and nature.  The second half reveals the sometimes chaotic confusion that occurs within societies in transition.  This uneasy transformation is perhaps best symbolized in the image of a young boy, walking and dressed in traditional garbs, as he is engulfed in the swirls of a dust storm created by the wake of a huge, passing construction truck.

Powaqqatsi is presented entirely without narration.  In fact, there is no conventional story or plot to the film.  Instead, it is a symphony of sequential images which offer a splice-of-life portrait of cultures more attuned to a naturalistic existence than to the blur of industrialized activity.  Reggio's film ultimately challenges viewers to interpret its images within the realms of our own individual experiences.  Powaqqatsi concludes with a translation of its unusual title, offering some further insight into a possible unifying theme for the images of the film.

As with Koyaanisqatsi, its predecessor, this film is better experienced than described.  With scenes captured from daily life in India, Africa, and the South America continent, Powaqqatsi offers a glimpse into a world perhaps alien to many Westerners yet one just as vital and functional.  The film is a testimony to the power of cinematic images in eliciting emotional and contemplative thought.


"...life as war..."

Film ***

In 2002, the final installment of the qatsi trilogy was released.  "Life as War" came at a particularly stark time, on the heels of 9/11 and the beginning of a global transformation into a fear that life was indeed out of balance.

In this film, Reggio mostly slows it down, showing images shot at higher speeds, with stretching, distortions, and tuning colors way up or way down.  It begins with a shot of Max Escher's "Tower of Babel", and slowly turns into true "babble", the digital communication where computers talk and do amazing and terrifying things, all with a simple series of 1s and 0s (a repeating image in the film).

It explores athletes in competition and images of war, but also commercialism and ever-expanding technology.  Once again, the visual style is the narrative, and the view is left to discern the imagery and make of it what he or she will.  Reggio's vision of what our modern world is may not be optimistic, but it remains unique, beautiful, unsettling...sometimes all at once.

I can't pretend to ascribe a commentary or meaning, merely a reaction, which, as with the previous films, is one of hypnotic fascination.  In a time when computers dominate so much of filmmaking that it's virtually impossible to detect real from electronically generated, Reggio almost thumbs his nose at the convention, provided some computerized imagery, but visions that are so rough and blatant as to be unmistakable.  Maybe we've blurred the lines between real and unreal so much that there's nothing left but our own perceptions...but then, I'm now doing exactly what I said I couldn't do.  Maybe shouldn't is a better word.

The most memorable sequence is a simple series of horizontal wipes that places images in between shots of wax figures of world leaders and celebrities...it's so intriguing that at first I wasn't aware that I was not looking at the real individuals.  Maybe that's another point; we elevate and celebrate these individuals so much that they have become whatever we draw onto their blank canvases.

Does the trilogy offer a perfect realization of life in the modern world?  Not quite.  But they offer a different, open, and imaginative perspective on this crazy human race we continue to run, day in and day out. 

Video ****

Films such as these require absolutely the best video transfer, and this Blu-ray set does not disappoint.  For films of varying ages, 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 films are virtuoso visual feasts of an almost ethereal quality, and the video transfers do the movies proud.

However, I do have a few words about the proper aspect ratio for the films, as there seems to be some consumer confusion.  The films were 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, as do prior home video releases.  On the other hand, the official theatrical releases 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 Blu-ray shows this official close-matted version of the films 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.  And frankly, these Blu-rays offer such stunning, crisp, detailed high definition experiences, there's absolutely nothing to even PRETEND to complain about.

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 ***1/2

These films possess no real dialogue, so the score becomes extremely important in supporting the visuals.  Noted New Age composer Philip Glass contributed the music for these movies.  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 very superior, and brings a balance and potency to the music that has probably not been heard before.

Features ***1/2

This three disc set boasts plenty of extras, including:

· Essence of Life, an interview program with Reggio and composer Philip Glass on Koyaanisqatsi
· New interview with cinematographer Ron Fricke about Koyaanisqatsi
· Early forty-minute demo version of Koyaanisqatsi with a scratch soundtrack by Allen Ginsberg, along with a new introduction by Reggio
· New interview with Reggio about Koyaanisqatsi’s original visual concept, with behind-the-scenes footage
· Impact of Progress, an interview program with Reggio and Glass on their collaboration
· Inspiration and Ideas, an interview with Reggio about his greatest influences and teachers
· Anima Mundi (1992), Reggio’s twenty-eight-minute montage of images of over seventy animal species, scored by Glass
· Video afterword by Reggio on the trilogy
· The Making of “Naqoyqatsi,” a brief documentary featuring interviews with the production crew
· Panel discussion on Naqoyqatsi from 2003, with Reggio, Glass, editor Jon Kane, and music critic John Rockwell
· Music of “Naqoyqatsi,” an interview with Glass and cellist Yo-Yo Ma
· Television spots and an interview with Reggio relating to his 1970s multimedia privacy campaign in New Mexico
· Trailers
· PLUS: A booklet featuring essays on the trilogy by film scholar Scott MacDonald, Rockwell, and author and environmentalist Bill McKibben


Spellbinding, hypnotic, mesmerizing...these are all words that describe The Qatsi Trilogy.  Yet, mere words cannot fully describe these unique films.  This is a set 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!

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