The Criterionist – KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

By Darin Skaggs


In many ways, Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi could be labeled pretentious. It is one of the easiest statements you can make about the film. The film has absolutely no talking, with the exception of a chant of the title of the film.  It is made up of long shots of seemingly mundane things, regularly where the footage is sped up. There is grand number of political statements being made from the sequences of the film that if anyone makes it past the no talking, no plot aspect of the film they might give up after all the environmental parts being forced down their throat. For me Koyaanisqatsi was an experience, it brought me joy, then sadness and a surprising amount of stress. With that statement you could probably call fans of this film pretentious as well, but if you do, we most likely will not care. Koyaanisqasti is a strange, hauntingly beautiful experience.

The beginning of the film after a few of those creepy chants of the title and what seem to be cave drawings of some sort, there are black and white shots of a space ship taking off. It is manipulated at first to look like only explosions and give off a sense of dread, even though we don’t know where these are occurring. A sigh of relief comes when we realize it is just a rocket ship launching into space. After that the movie goes into several gorgeous shots of the barren desert landscape. At first I thought this would be a movie that tries to get across that people don’t appreciate the world and how amazing it looks. In a way that is what the movie is about, but it is angrier than that. After getting us used to the barren look, it shows us shots of dozens of metal telephone poles that have been placed in the spots we have just been admiring. To be honest this cut, was jarring. The next twenty minutes I found myself angry at humanity for contaminating the world like this. I am not big on environmentalist problems, I care about the environment but not as much as I did watching this film.

Humans are evident after the ten minute mark, but it seems they don’t actually get camera time until about half way through the film. It is good to note that when we do see actual humans, they are causing some sort of burst of heat, but right after that the next images shown are from nuclear explosions. That is a pretty clear statement, without humans there would be no war, or destruction of this beautiful Earth. The opening has, what looks like explosions. There is another moment in the movie where explosions occur and then this one. The big one. Reggio is clearly angry about society ruining Earth, and instead of just sitting around and complaining about it, he has made this tremendous work of art. A wonderful piece that gets his point across with no words. If you were to put any words in here you would just get others, or his, crazy sounding opinions. Here he just shows you. I don’t know if Reggio is a film fan, but he saw potential to motivate others to try and help save the world with just showing instead of telling.

After those moments, there is about a half hour until the movie is over. And it is the most stressful for me. The film is shown in a faster speed than normal. When you put clouds in fast forwards or viewing a landscape, it is beautiful. Reggio wanted to catch up with society though. He needed to show what a city was like it fast motion. I think he shows LA, but it could be any big city. There are a huge amount of cars lined up for what seems like an eternity, there are two escalators that are surrounded by a swarm of people waiting for their turn to go up the steps. Now I am a slightly claustrophobic person, and certainly introverted. Now maybe this just speaks to my level of anxiety as well, but these scenes with people being stuck and forced to wait to get out a crowd made me so stressed that I needed to get up and leave the room at one point. This is most likely a look at how the world is over populated, at least from Reggio’s point of view, but for me this was a caution tale to never move into a big city.

One of the last shots shown is the space ship, probably from the beginning of the film, taking off. Sadly, it malfunctions, explodes and is shown tumbling down to the ground. After watching almost an hour and a half of a filmmaker telling us we messed up, by putting up what we did wrong, the director then shows us actually messing up with no way to save it. He showed us testing nukes, but not using them on anybody. Here we watch a creation break, exploded. It seems a statement of saving the world, saving us, before it is too late and we cannot do anything about it. For the politically sensitive this movie might not be their cup of tea. If they can even get passed the quiet, experimentation of the film as well. For those who love movies though, this is essential viewing.



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