Wordless Poetry – Koyaanisqatsi (1982) Review

Koyaanisqatsi Poster

Whichever way you slice it film is an art form, another medium for expression, another way to tell a story or convey a message. This artistic element is largely present in all films, but rarely is it the main objective of a movie. Step forward then, Koyaanisqatsi, which fits better into the category of visual tone poem than that of blockbuster or indie film. It could also be defined by what is absent from this film – no actors, no dialogue, no narrative – it consists of simply a sequence of various shots and an orchestral soundtrack. Koyaanisqatsi works in the same way as a painting in a gallery, freeing the viewer to draw individual meaning from it, bringing whatever they want to it and seeing what they get.

By now I’m sure a lot of you are wondering about that title. While I can’t help you with pronunciation (I’m not sure how to write it down phonetically) I can tell you that in the language of the Native American tribe known as the Hopi, the word means ‘life unbalanced’ or ‘life out of balance’. This begins to make sense when the film starts off with images of the natural world and then switches to industrial scenes and on to heavily populated cities. Clearly the idea is to create a contrast between the beauty of our planet and the impact that we have on it, an idea which still has relevance and poignancy today.

The stand-out strength of Koyaanisqatsi is in its visuals. Almost every shot is evocative and the combination of time-lapse and slow-motion photography make for some truly striking images, but surprisingly enough this quality tends to skew the message of the film in my view.

Koyaanisqatsi City Scene

The film seems to be saying more than the observation that our world is ‘out of balance’, it appears to be actively reprimanding humanity for overstepping boundaries and abusing the world around us, evidenced by the ominous chanting and sombre tone of the accompanying soundtrack by Philip Glass that bookends the film. Strangely enough, this foreboding tone comes juxtaposed with beautiful shots of waterfalls and valleys before exploding into upbeat repetitious triumph just as our attention changes to the hustling and bustling of cities and industry. This sequence, and it’s quite a long one, spoke to me of celebrating in the technological achievements of mankind, akin to glorying in the mass production of a fictional utopia. Sure there are scenes of derelict buildings and run-down neighbourhoods, but they are brief and far outweighed by glorious shots of sparkling cities looking like islands in the ever-flowing rivers of traffic. Not quite what I expected in truth.

Going back to the aforementioned contrast, a time-lapse shot of crowds flowing up escalators became in my eyes a backwards waterfall reminding me of the real waterfall near the beginning of the film. Both had a remarkable mesmerizing quality, especially accompanied by the hypnotic score, and I could not help but think of the similarities between them.

Ultimately, Koyaanisqatsi finishes with a return to the sombre chanting of the opening and to the very first shot of early cave paintings, symbolising some of the earliest impacts that out species has had on the Earth. What I took away from it was not a warning (as I think was intended), but a sense of wonder in both the natural and the human world. The ride I took to get to that was both entrancing and ambiguous, in a way that only artistic cinema can provide.

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