Film: Koyaanisqatsi

"You've never really seen the world you live in."

Koyaanisqatsi is a 1983 Godfrey Reggio film. There is no obvious plot or story, there are no actors, there is no dialog. The whole film is just time lapse footage of nature, people, and machines with music composed by Philip Glass. Despite the synopsis sounding dull, the film is mesmerizing. The film starts with beautiful footage of the desert and natural rock formations. From there human work is more and more evident. The middle section of the film is about the hustle and bustle of modern life. Towards the end, the film focuses on people of different walks of life. The last sequence is a failed rocket launch in slow motion.

It is the first part of a "qatsi" trilogy, it is followed by Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi.

If the name sounds familiar, the title song is used whenever the Janitor delivers a Death Glare. The pieces "Pruitt-Igoe" and "Prophecies" that were written for this film are probably better known to the current flock of 20-to-30-somethings as the accompaniment to Jon Osterman's transformation into Dr. Manhattan in the Watchmen film adaptation, or from the first Grand Theft Auto IV trailer. "The Grid", however, is the best-known piece, both visually and aurally. Fans of The Truman Show will instantly recognize The Anthem from Powaqqatsi.

Reggio's cinematographer Ron Fricke went on to make Chronos (in IMAX), Baraka, and Samsara, all of which have obvious similarities to the "qatsi" films.

"Tropes out of balance":

  • Bookends: At the very beginning of the movie we see a rocket take off, and at the end of the movie, it explodes.
    • More subtly, the rocket first seen taking off cuts to a Saturn V successfully launching an Apollo mission; the rocket leaving the launch pad at the end is also a Saturn V, but this is then replaced by the original, doomed rocket.
  • Blipvert: There is a section where a television screen shows various adverts and programmes but shown in time-lapse. Blink and you'll miss a couple of frames of Thomas Dolby in his famous "She Blinded Me With Science" video.
    • The credits sequence is made up of audio-blipverts that sounds like TVs, radios and telephones all playing at the same time.
  • Death Glare: One scene has people pass the camera in slow motion. Some people give the camera a nasty look.
  • Documentary
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Watch the opening "Serra Pelada" sequence of Powaqqatsi and try not to see the people at the gold mine as ants.
  • Follow the Leader: Microcosmos and Winged Migration are both heavily influenced by the films.
  • Foreign Language Title: "Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word meaning life out of balance. Powaqatsi means life in transformation and Naqoyqatsi means life of killing each other (sometimes translated as life as war).
  • Green Aesop: Though the film itself doesn't make it explicit, the translation of the title gives it away.
  • Homage: The Serra Pelada sequence in Powaqqatsi were an homage to the famous photos taken by Sebastião Salgado two years earlier of the same gold mine.
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: Again, it's more of a subliminal feeling you get watching it.
    • Reggio completely refutes this idea. It's completely in the head of the viewer.
      • In an interview on the Criterion Blu-ray, cinematographer Ron Fricke says he believes Reggio intended Koyaanisqatsi to present a Green Aesop: whereas he [Fricke] strove to reveal beauty in all of the images, regardless of their content. Word of God suggests Fricke's opinion presumes Creative Differences which did not actually exist.
  • Leave the Camera Running: While most of the film has interesting shots, though many find that the scene with the taxiing jets stretches on too long (two and a half minutes, all one shot—the longest shot in the whole picture).
  • Lost Aesop: the film doesn't make it explicit, but that's part of the point.
  • Not So Different: Shots of satellite photos of cities are intercut with circuitry boards. It's difficult to tell which is which.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Well, Ominous Hopi Chanting.
  • Ominous Pipe Organ: During the title track.
  • Overcrank: People walking by, the demolitions of housing projects.
  • Pop Culture Osmosis: For example, in Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder episode of The Simpsons reference has a high-speed time lapse of a day in Homer's bedroom when he oversleeps.
    • Recent episodes of The Simpsons have seen more vivid references, including a full parody of Itchy and Scratchy with several images taken directly from the film.
      • All of these images are present in this official trailer.
  • Scenery Porn
  • Shout-Out: Received one in Madonna's video for "Ray of Light".
  • Silence Is Golden, a very rare modern instance.
  • Slow Motion
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Particularly at the end.
  • Stock Footage: Used for the demolition scenes; also nuclear tests, The Vietnam War, and and the rocket destruction at the end.
    • TV documentaries and commercials sometimes use the movie as a source of stock footage.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: The stock footage above.
  • Surreal Music Video: The case has been made that the trilogy is best understood as feature-length examples of the form.
  • Tetris Effect: When the film was first released in 1983, people who left the theater after seeing it on the towering screen of the Zeigfeld Theater in New York City - and with Philip Glass jacked up on the speakers - walking out into the NYC streets was a trippy thing, since the viewers had just seen what the traffic and pedestrians were like on a meta-scale. Said viewers were forever changed by the experience.
  • Time-Compression Montage
  • Time Lapse: Most of the footage.
  • The Tropeless Tale: This page refutes that, of course, but Koyaanisqatsi is technically not a documentary, nor is it a traditionally narrative film either. The only label that it might possibly wear is Experimental Film.
  • Undercrank: The factory assembly lines and masses of people are sped up, as are clouds in most of the nature shots.