Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi - Blu-ray Review

'A pair of films unlike anything else out there; a fusion of some truly wonderful images and music'

Both Godfrey Reggio's inaugural directorial effort, Koyaanisqatsi, and its follow-up companion piece Powaqqatsi, are the very definition of subjective cinematic experiences. Stretching the documentary format to its limits, ironically by stripping the structural elements down to their rawest forms, Reggio's films force you to experience them and then reflect on that experience, offering little guidance along the way. It's a bold and liberating approach to cinema, and one that those who have become overly comfortable with the exposition-heavy hand-holding and spoon-feeding that many mainstream movies provide may struggle to accept. 

There is no narrative here, nor indeed any narration. The only voices you'll hear in both Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi are the chants which sporadically filter through Philip Glass' largely instrumental score. Reggio simply presents a kaleidoscopic stream of images for you to ingest and ruminate upon. The sequences presented in each film are thematically linked, however, and broadly tie into the English translation of each films' Hopi language title. Koyaanisqatsi ("life out of balance") focuses on life in North America, with an opening segment focusing on the natural landscape of the country that gives way to sequences depicting America's increasing dependence on technology. Powaqqatsi ("life in transformation") in contrast focuses on various developing countries, with the central thread being how the traditions of these countries are evolving to incorporate new technology. 

Many of the images presented throughout both films are photographically superb, regularly giving Reggio's work the feeling of an art installation rather than a feature film. Inseparable from the beautiful camerawork is Glass' soundtracks for the two films. Koyaanisqatsi's music is a blend of haunting Gregorian style chanting and busy synthesised melodies, creating a chilling meeting of the ancient and the modern; in Powaqqatsi, Glass opts for cinematically epic themes fused with ethnic musical styles reminiscent of the cultures presented to us. Both scores are infectious, helped further by their permeation of popular culture since the initial releases of both films - if you've seen The Truman Show then some of Powaqqatsi's motifs will be familiar, whilst Koyaanisqatsi's main theme cropped more recently in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.

Reggio's chosen style however provides some key weaknesses as well as strengths within both films. The lack of structure can make the films' messages feel somewhat basic, even inconsequential at times. If Reggio has an agenda, then he rarely exerts it upon his work aside from the somewhat cryptic definitions provided for the titles at the end of each film. Reggio's stubborn resolution to make his films a constant carousel of images without a narrative thread can also become frustrating; we are shown a great many faces - some of which it's intriguing to imagine the life that's been lived by the people behind them - but none ever become anything more than fleeting figures whom Reggio consciously decides we aren't to get to know. Powaqqatsi in particular also contains sequences depicting several traditional festivals and rituals which are neither explained nor contextualised, and which may have resonated more had the director managed to do so.

It's also clear throughout both films that Reggio wants you take his work very seriously, which occasionally makes Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi come across as rather pretentious. If Reggio had added a handful of lighthearted elements to break up the somewhat overwhelming sincerity and weightiness, then both films would likely have ended up as slightly easier watches. As it is, both can be quite a slog to get through, even with the running times of each hovering around the relatively brief hour-and-a-half mark. Powaqqatsi also suffers from feeling like the marginally weaker of the two: partly because it is chronologically second and therefore occasionally feels like a rehash of Koyaanisqatsi; but also because Reggio seriously overuses slow-motion to the point of overkill throughout his second film, something not apparent in his first. 

Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi ultimately emerge as a flawed pair of films from Reggio. However, it's far preferable to see a filmmaker attempt such bold projects as these and fall short at a few points along the way, than to watch yet another safe and predictable movie that takes no risks. This is a pair of films unlike anything else out there; a fusion of some truly wonderful images and music that, if nothing else, will make you think for yourself in a way many films do not.



Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi are released on UK Blu-ray now.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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