The Grand Illusion in “Koyaanisqatsi”

Godfrey Reggio’s “Koyaanisqatsi” is a documentary that has been imitated countless times but never surpassed, and maybe never quite equaled either. Ron Fricke, the cinematographer of this important piece of filmmaking, went on to direct his own films like “Baraka” and “Samsara”, but for some reason they lacked the philosophical depth that a mind like Godfrey Reggio brought to the table. “Koyaanisqatsi” is more than just a series of breathtaking images stitched up together; it feels like a poetic visual essay. There’s a message behind all the beautiful imagery and it is conveyed without uttering a single word of dialogue. Our first clue is the title, a Hopi Indian word that translates to “a way of life that calls for another way of living.”

Reggio does not spoon-feed anything, the viewer is required to think for himself. It is only when you attempt to connect the dots or the relation between one shot and the other, that you start to grasp the film’s meaning. For example, we see a top view shot of a city, the grid is made of streets, building blocks, and cars moving around in fast motion. The film then cuts to a computer chip, and you get it instantly. We have enclosed ourselves in an artificial environment that has replaced the natural world as a setting. Nature has been reduced to a resource that fuels this machine we’re trapped in.

What Godfrey Reggio achieves in this film is truly miraculous. The first time I watched it, it felt like Morpheus was awakening me to the reality of the world we live in. Reggio captures the world from new angles, and it almost feels like you’re looking at things for the very first time. You start to see the world like you’ve never seen it before. You look at a supermarket and you see consumerism encapsulated within a single shot because of the way it is framed. And there’s nothing quite as powerful as hearing Philip Glass’ haunting score kick in at key moments to really punctuate a point. This exemplary work of pure cinema relies on nothing but sight and sound to deliver its powerful message. “Koyaanisqatsi” is one of the most eye-opening works of art created in the late 20th century.  

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