Koyaanisqatsi is a 1983 Godfrey Reggio film. There is no obvious plot or story, no actors, and no dialogue. 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":
- The '70s: It was largely filmed during this decade.
- 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 end credits sequence is made up of audio-blipverts that sounds like TVs, radios and telephones all playing at the same time.
- Bookends: At the very beginning of the movie we see a rocket take off, and at the end of the movie, it explodes.note
- Broken Record: Glass's scores show the influence of minimalism with musical figures that loop and repeat constantly, evolving slowly over time. Perhaps most notably, the title track features a solo bass voice chanting the word "Koyaanisqatsi...." in an endless loop.
- Busby Berkeley Number: The multiple shots of women fanning grain to dry it out becomes one in Powaqqatsi.
- The Cameo: Ted Koppel on the TV sequence to the point of being credited.
- Creator Cameo: Producer Francis Ford Coppola makes an appearance in "Prophecies" as an extra entering an elevator, although this is downplayed by his nominal contribution to the movie.
- Death Glare:
- One scene has people pass the camera in slow motion. Some people give the camera a nasty look.
- The Tranquil Fury stare from the close-up of the pilot at the end of 'Pruitt-Igoe' also qualifies.
- Documentary: The film is not a documentary, in that it sets out to tell a crafted story, albeit purely with visuals and music and no dialog.
- 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.
- Drone of Dread: Glass's music, at the beginning.
- Le Film Artistique: One of the best examples and one of the few to influence mainstream cinema.
- Foreign Language Title: "Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word meaning life out of balance. Powaqqatsi 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 as it is open for interpretations, 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.
- Montages: An old-school example
- No Plot? No Problem!: It's basically just sped-up images of the world.
- 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.
- Scenery Gorn: Pruitt-Igoe, in particular.
- Scenery Porn: Many, many images from the trilogy; the natives in Powaaqatsi drying grain is a Real Life Busby Berkeley Number.
- Silence Is Golden: A very rare modern instance.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: Particularly at the end.
- Spiritual Successor: Cinematographer Ron Fricke's Baraka series is his take on the Koyannisqatsi series.
- Stock Footage: Used for the demolition scenes; also nuclear tests, The Vietnam War, and and the rocket launch(es). The film also had a influence on the look of stock footage as seen in TV documentaries and commercials. This video recreated the film's trailer using nothing but watermarked 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 Lapse: Most of the footage.
- Undercrank: The factory assembly lines and masses of people are sped up, as are clouds in most of the nature shots.
- Vow of Celibacy: Reggio was a monk for fourteen years, meaning not only did he take a vow of celibacy, but a vow of silence and fasted as well over that time. He states that he did Koyaanisqatsi as part of his Fish out of Water experience returning from monkdom.
- Wham Shot: After the jaw-dropping twenty-minute high-speed sequence that is "The Grid," the music cuts out, and we see a helicopter shot of New York City. That dissolves into a satellite photograph... which then dissolves into a close-up of a microchip. Even after seeing this film several times, this is bone-chilling, and for first-time viewers, it's a kick to the gut.