Koyaanisqatsi ★★★½

Some films by the likes of Terrence Malick or Nicolas Winding Refn are accused of being visual feasts without much in the way of substance. So how does one evaluate a film that doesn't even make any pretence of having a narrative beyond its visual storytelling? After having seen Koyaanisqatsi, I can confidently say... I still have no idea.

This is the most renowned example of what I'm calling—for lack of a better descriptor—the "film about nothing but also about everything" subgenre, which hinges everything on the effect gained from the scenic shots paired with moody music. In this case, Ron Fricke provides the former element while Philip Glass handles the latter, with Godfrey Reggio acting as the maestro that brings them both together. As a sensory experience, Koyaanisqatsi obviously delivers, but you already know that. That's all anyone talks about. So rather than singing the praises of this film's technics or writing some vague poem in place of a review, I'm going to "Promising Young Woman" the shit out of this review; this will be a positive rating that sounds far more like a scathing criticism.

First off, while Fricke's shots are generally appealing, the whole visual language of the film eventually reached a point of staleness. I know the general consensus is that you need to treat Koyaanisqatsi like a captivating journey of the senses, but after a while, I got sick of just seeing sped-up footage of cars inching through traffic and hordes of people shuffling through metro stations. At least when Fricke took his own stab at directing this sort of film with Baraka and Samsara, he threw in ample shots of nature and different global cultures to mix things up.

The other main appeal of Reggio's Qatsi Trilogy is the notion that the viewer can pick up any message they want from the film; it's primarily about how the audiovisual experience impacts them individually. But since all we really see are urban buildings, people walking through streets and factory machines, I can really only see one "message:" humanity is too industrialized. Not a bad message, and certainly not one completely buried into meaninglessness by 1982. But as someone watching this in 2021, I couldn't help but feel like I didn't need to spend 86 minutes to come to the conclusion of "factories bad."

My admittedly elementary interpretation aside, I simply can't help but prefer the idea of the "film about nothing but also about everything" in bite-sized portions. But who knows, maybe all those people who said this film must be watched with the most immersive setup possible had an advantage over the guy watching Koyaanisqatsi on his 13" laptop while the same cycle of ads kept popping up every 15 minutes because Tubi is the only garbage "streaming" service hosting the film at the moment. This is perhaps the essential "you have to be in the right headspace to appreciate it" film, and it's safe to assume I was not in the right headspace.

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