The continuing and almost bizarre popularity of Koyaanisqatsi puzzles some people. It’s like fascination we might feel for visual illusions, perceptual anomalies or the magician’s slight of hand. But still, it’s not really a movie. In spite of the film’s age (it was released in 1982), Koyaanisqatsi still dematerializes us, in effect, even though we know — or at least believe — we are very material indeed.
What was going on in the early 1980s?
Godfrey Reggio directed the film — a Francis Ford Coppola project — with cinematography by Ron Fricke. For many people it was a revelation — a blend of mysticism and science. No plot, just a visual journey. Ron Fricke, known for his time-lapse effects, juxtapositions to make the common seem surreal, can also make concrete reality seem imaginary. Critic Roger Ebert felt it was a cheap marketing shot — to make people aware of the environment.
From today’s point of view, the movie uses a visual style that is so familiar it threatens to rob the work of power. Like easy gimmicks that you might find clichéd and annoying. But Philip Glass wrote the score and it still works.
Speed it up, move it out
Yes, the tricks are endemic — they have become a tradition. Large scenes blend and speed up. We get to see human activity as if it were a lab construct, version of an electrical flow, flux field or bio-messaging system. Insides and outsides blend.
Speed it up, move the point of view out a few miles, and all of it looks like a film of oil on water. We are iridescent butterflies navigating under cloud castles. Highways like skeins of light passing through plasma. Visibility is silk. We are merely a demonstration of iridescence or spinning coil generating electromagnetic fields.
The Qatsi Trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi/Powaqqatsi/Naqoyqatsi)(The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]