Judge Clark Douglas' wordless review was sharply rejected by his editor.
A portrait of life out of balance, in transformation and as war.
For better or worse, director Godfrey Reggio is in a league of his own. His films very nearly defy description—they're too abstract to be documentaries, too reliant on pre-existing footage to qualify as original narrative features and too ambitious to be dismissed as glorified music videos. He does not "direct" his films in a traditional sense so much as conduct them, fusing images provided by his exceptional cinematographers to music provided by the great Philip Glass. His films unquestionably indulge in a great deal of visual sermonizing, but that's only to be expected from a man who spent 14 years praying, fasting and meditating in silence before turning his attention to the world of cinema. His points are much larger and (usually) more abstract than the politically-driven points "message movies" tend to make. I'm not quite sure that Reggio's trilogy is ultimately as profound as he wants it to be, but it is unquestionably a wildly ambitious endeavor.
The series begins with the 1982 feature Koyaanisqatsi, named after a Hopi word meaning, "Life out of balance." It is the most focused and effective of the three films, a cinematic knockout punch that presents its simple truths with alarming force. Reggio begins with serene images of nature: vast landscapes unspoiled by man's endless tampering. After a while, he hurtles us into modern civilization, using time-lapse photography to capture the mindless ugliness humanity has inflicted upon the planet. Granted, it's absolutely a worst-case scenario (Reggio goes out of his way to present humans at their tackiest, all the way down to montages of food factory workers churning out endless quantities of hot dogs and Twinkies), but the manner in which Reggio documents our affection for excess is effectively damning. It's an apocalyptic film that remains the crowning achievement of the director's career.
While it's true that Reggio's sequels are attempting to explore things from a different angle, one can't help but get the sense that he's trying to recapture lightning in a bottle. 1988's Powaqqatsi ("Life in transition") distinguishes itself from its predecessor in a number of major ways: it places a great deal of emphasis on man's ability to live in harmony with nature (something Koyaanisqatsi never really acknowledged), it replaces time-lapse photography with slow-motion and it's generally a more complex look at the world. However, it's just not as powerful as a cinematic experience. The film is graceful and aesthetically lovely (even when it shouldn't be), but it's unlikely to have quite the same impact on most viewers. Perhaps this is due to the fact that it attempts to tackle too much, perhaps it's that the editing isn't as compelling or perhaps it's simply that the element of surprise is gone, but Powaqqatsi definitely represents a step down.
Naqoyqatsi (or "Life as war") didn't arrive in theatres until 2002, and it definitely feels like a product of a different era than the other two films. Reggio's favorite visual technique this time around is the heavy use of computer-generated imagery. Most of the new digital footage looks pretty crummy by today's standards, which makes the movie feel far more dated than its older brethren. However, the movie is largely about the artifice of the modern world, so it could be argued that the approach still works on an artistic level. It's arguably the least memorable installment of the series and unquestionably the most strident. While there was an elegance to the manner in which Reggio presented his message in the earlier films, his images seem awfully obvious this time around. In one scene, he intercuts images of babies with images of athletes celebrating a sports victory. In another, he cuts back and forth between CG footage of fake celebrities walking down the red carpet with live-action footage of real celebrities walking down a red carpet. In another, he casually juxtaposes U.S. Military television commercials with old footage of goose-stepping Nazis. The film still contains some impressive passages here and there, but the overall product is underwhelming enough to make one wish that Reggio had moved on to something else.
Whatever you may think about the films themselves, it must be noted that Philip Glass' contributions are outstanding throughout. Koyaanisqatsi is the most thoroughly minimalistic score of the trilogy, with Glass' trademark arpeggios repeating endlessly and shifting ever-so-subtly into transcendent musical outbursts. Powaqqatsi is a considerable change-of-pace, relying heavily on synthesizers and at times playing like Glass doing his best Vangelis impression. It's one of Glass' most enjoyably uplifting scores and it certainly suits the gentler nature of the film. Naqoyqatsi provides some interesting contrast by fusing some exceptionally chilly Glass melodies with Yo-Yo Ma's expressive cello solos (indeed, the cello is arguably the warmest of all musical instruments). This score tends to be a bit more low-key than the others, but it also bursts into moments of percussion-heavy violence that make a huge impact.
The Qatsi Trilogy (Blu-ray) has received three exceptional 1080p transfers from Criterion. All three films look impressive, with Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi offering a particularly warm, filmic look (complete with light, pleasing layers of natural grain) and much of Naqoyqatsi taking on a chillier digital look (as one would expect given the nature of the film—only a fraction of the movie was actually shot on film). Detail is exceptional in all three colors, colors are bright and vibrant (particularly on the first two films) and depth is solid throughout. All three films are accompanied by stellar DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks that give the Glass scores all of the immersive energy they deserve. On rare occasions bits of dialogue (usually from a television or radio) or other sounds are permitted to enter the fray, but for the most part you'll just be hearing Glass' music.
The supplemental package is an appealing blend of old and new material. Making a return appearance are the well-produced featurettes "Essence of Life" (26 minutes), "Impact of Progess" (20 minutes), "The Making of Naqoyqatsi" (5 minutes) and "Music of Naqoyqatsi" (8 minutes), theatrical trailers and the excellent hour-long panel discussion featuring Reggio, Glass and editor John Kane. New to this collection is an interview with Koyaanisqatsi cinematographer Ron Fricke (17 minutes), a brief Reggio interview on some of his early visual ideas of Koyaanisqatsi (5 minutes), the rough early demo version of Koyaanisqatsi (complete with music from none other than Allen Ginsberg!), some old Reggio-directed television spots on the subject of public privacy (11 minutes), another interview with Reggio on his philosophical beliefs (19 minutes), an archival interview with Reggio from 1989 (19 minutes), the excellent Glass-scored short film "Anima Mundi" (30 minutes), an afterword on the trilogy from Reggio (19 minutes) and a booklet featuring strong essays by Scott Macdonald, John Rockwell and Bill McKibben. It's a terrific supplemental package that greatly enhances the experience.
While I'd argue that Koyaanisqatsi is the only film of the trilogy that is essential viewing, it's hard not to admire the ambition and artistry of Reggio's wordless endeavor. Criterion's box set is superb on every level.
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