KOYAANISQATSI opens with scenes of the American southwest, many of them filmed from the air and displaying the sheer hugeness of the area: deep chasms, enormous rocks on vast plains, all with little vegetable and no human life. Shots of Niagara Falls and other troubled waters and an increasingly ominous tone to the music set the viewer on edge, as one begins to see signs of human presence: machines, pipelines, power lines take a place in the landscape. Nuclear explosions produce mushroom clouds over the desert.
People are eventually seen, sunbathing on a beach in the shadow of an enormous factory. The natural world soon disappears altogether, replaced long shots of packed highways. Sped up, they look like rivers of erratic light. The music becomes dominated by swirling arpeggios, simultaneously controlled and hectic.
The central segment of the film, set to a Philip Glass piece called "The Grid," consists primarily of sped-up footage of people traveling to and working at their jobs, mostly assembly-line factory work. The music has a relentlessly steady pulse, and grows subtly more complicated as it proceeds. The footage also increases in intensity, giving the impression of motion that has reached the physical limits of velocity.
Just as they seem about to explode in a frenzy, the images and the music stop, replaced by slow-motion footage of people who seem displaced, derelict; the music also grows much slower and simpler, largely a solo organ and chanting voices. After the previous section, this feels like a hangover. The movie ends with an astonishing, unbroken tracking shot of a rocket that explodes in mid-air shortly after liftoff. For several long minutes, the camera follows a piece of burning wreckage so steadily that it appears not to be falling at all, merely spinning in space.
The film starts with ancient Indian pictographs and a portentous chanting of the word "Koyaanisqatsi":
Unfortunately, the nature shots didn't impress me that much. I'd say they're inferior to what you see in a typical National Geographic special. Having viewed such high-definition films as the Planet Earth series, I can't be impressed by low-budget aerial shots from 30 years ago. Some shots are from Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly--Navajo locations that people have filmed many times.
Koyaanisqatsi eventually segues to scenes from civilization: mining operations, power plants, atomic-bomb detonations, Boeing 747s on a runway, building implosions. If you've never seen an exploding bomb or a collapsing building, these scenes might be affecting. But some of us were ducking under our disks during bomb drills in kindergarten. Three decades after the 1950s, the movie's implicit warning is a little late.
Roger Ebert notes how the technological images don't necessarily fit the "life out of balance" theme:
I had another problem. All of the images in this movie are beautiful, even the images of man despoiling the environment. The first shot of smokestacks is no doubt supposed to make us recoil in horror, but actually I thought they looked rather noble. The shots of the expressways are also two-edged. Given the clue in the title, we can consider them as an example of life out of control. Or--and here's the catch--we can marvel at the fast-action photography and reflect about all those people moving so quickly to their thousands of individual destinations. What a piece of work is a man! And what expressways he builds!
"Koyaanisqatsi," then, is an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind. It is all images and music. There is no overt message except the obvious one (the Grand Canyon is prettier than Manhattan).
I'd say only two of the film's segments are impressive. First, "The Grid," where the images and music finally combine to convey the chaos of modern life. Again, from Wikipedia:
The segment's point is obvious. Humanity's hubris...the folly of relying on technology...Icarus flying too high and plummeting back to earth. Unlike the other segments, it's memorable because we haven't seen similar scenes over and over.
Anyway, I give Koyaanisqatsi a 7.0 of 10. Mostly for "The Grid" segment, which you can see an excerpt of below. The concept--contrasting nature with modern life--is a good one, but only "The Grid" achieves the effect Reggio was going for.
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.