Koyaanisqatsi is truly one mesmerizing film. Filmed at the beginning of the 1980‘s, its documentary footage of various sectors of the world at the time really succeeds at painting a picture of modernity, captured within the realms of the ever-present natural world. Essentially, this is the art of cinema in its purest form. Devoid of any true characters or conventional narrative, it is a poetic marriage of image and sound that speaks volumes with its aura of sheer simplicity that is easy to underestimate.
Nonetheless, despite such minimalism, the film still manages to work in a traditional three-act structure. Looming shots of mountains, clouds, and bodies of water compose the initial act, working as a complex love letter to the effervescence of the natural world. I have never before seen such fantastic shots of the Grand Canyon, grand in its beauty that almost seems unnatural. Just then, the sequence of shots gives us our first glimpses of human life – utility poles. Then dams, and power plants, and huge skyscrapers. What starts off as the infinite depths of the cloudy sky, soon turn into busy, bustling shopping malls and freeways. These are all physical manifestations of the human evolution into a large capitalist society – a realization that is almost rather haunting.
And let’s not forget the film’s brilliant score by Philip Glass. The pounding instrumentals and brooding tenor vocals all effectively capture the essence of the images in front of us, whether they be bird’s-eye views of endless forests, or the frenzied labor of factory workers. The score injects a capacity of emotion into the most uplifting moments of Koyaanisqatsi, but also in the most disheartening.
The final third reveals the true vulnerability of the human species; an aspect that we, ourselves, often take for granted. Despite our attempts to assert our superiority through technological and scientific advances, it’s clear that we are all capable of failure, damage, hopelessness, and, inevitably, death. It is at this point in our existence that we have grown the most disconnected from the world around us, building up artifices that could never affectively fill the void that we denied when placing ourselves above all other lifeforms. By rejecting we are part of the natural world, we lose the most important part of ourselves. Koyaanisqatsi, through such simple progression of imagery and music, presents this idea to us in a way that is both ambiguous and magnificent. Sometimes the conventions of narrative cinema could be so futile, whereas the power of imagery speaks in such volumes.