‘Koyaanisqatsi’: An Appreciation

❉ Watching now during the pandemic, #Koyaanisqatsi’s imagery and tone is cuttingly relevant.

“This film has one idea, a simplistic one. It contrasts the glory of nature with the mess made by man. But man is a messy beast, given to leaving reminders of his presence all over the surface of planet Earth.”  – Roger Ebert, September 26, 1983

Koyaanisqatsi is an artefact of prophecy and alarm. Simultaneously a romantic meditation on the natural world and a stark warning of the encroachment of technology and humanity, the 1982 experimental film, directed by Godfrey Reggio, cinematography by Ron Fricke, is a powerful environmental call to action and a naked attempt at evangelising the Gaia hypothesis. Watched today in early 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, when a quarter of the world is in lockdown and the idea of socialisation is anathema, the imagery and tone of Koyaanisqatsi is cuttingly relevant.

During the opening, the film comes across like a horror movie. The first few minutes of the soundtrack give the film an ominous, almost sinister edge. Philip Glass’s eerie music has hints of Kubrick’s use of Hector Berlioz’s Dies Irae in The Shining, with a title reveal reminiscent of Alien.

The film opens with a shot of a cave painting, the Great Gallery pictograph in Horseshoe Canyon, showing a group of figures surrounding a crowned giant. This enigmatic and ancient mystical image sets a number of themes in motion most notably the position of humanity in relation to something greater. The central giant, in the context of the rest of the film, seems to be a nod towards Gaia, an anthropomorphised representation of the natural world, at the same time dwarfing and overrun by the human occupants of the planet.

In a burst of fire, the ignition flames of a space rocket fills the screen, then transitioning to a smooth, floating shot of a mountain range. From this point, the camera dips in and out of landscapes and details within those landscapes, from rocks and caves to valleys and ridges. Sand dunes, forests, the ocean. The first part of the film presents the natural world and the natural elements that shaped it. Then, in a swooping shot over agricultural land, man enters the frame. Oil fields, pipes, power stations, pylons: humanities infringement on the natural world is shown in terms of the extraction of energy: an imbalance of the organic and inorganic.

The second half of the film is dominated by this depiction of humanity and the ways it imposes itself on the world. Cities (New York and LA) are presented, initially as shining, utopian spaces, and then in focused detail as repositories for garbage, pollution and swarms of people. Traffic is shown in speeded up footage with highways resembling human arteries and nerves, then resembling production lines, juxtaposing the stop/start grid of the New York road system with factory workers. The racing, throbbing soundtrack creates a sensory connection between biology, humanity, nature and technology, the rituals and habits of people turned into a kind of abstracted ballet.

The final shots of the film return to the space rocket, this time following, in slow motion, the jettisoned booster at it falls to the ground and then a last shot of the desert – the film, literally, coming back down to Earth.

Like many experimental films, Koyaanisqatsi is to be experienced as much as enjoyed.  Unlike some of the more abstract ones, however, Reggio’s movie has a clear and striking message that can be appreciated universally. A friend of mine described the reaction of her parents to seeing the film on release – emerging from the Times Square cinema into the intensely bustling heart of the New York they resolved there and then to abandon the city and move to the countryside, such was the power and clarity of the film’s message.

And that power hasn’t diminished. Such is the seismic psychological effect of the 2020 pandemic, at the time of writing it is difficult to look forward to a return to mass socialisation. We are living through a time where our fellow humans have become potential, unwitting carriers of a virus that is seemingly indiscriminate in the people it effects. Cities have become hot-spots, crowds have become both socially and legally unacceptable.

We are living through the journey that Koyaanisqatsi delineates, seeing its warnings and predictions play out across the globe with a stark power that no Zombie horror or post-apocalyptic thriller has ever managed to replicate.


❉ ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ © 1982 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.Director: Godfrey Reggio. Executive Producer: Francis Ford Coppola. Music by Philip Glass. Cinematography by Ron Fricke. Film Editing by Ron Fricke, Alton Walpole. Released in the UK on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy, 15 February 2015. Region: B. Running time 85m 37s.

❉ Matt Barber is a longstanding contributor to We Are Cult.

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