When Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio’s Philip Glass-scored tone poem on modernity, was released forty years ago, microchips were the cutting edge of technology. The launch of Apollo 11, shown in the opening sequence, was just over a decade old; the Challenger disaster, eerily foreshadowed by the film’s ending, wouldn’t happen for another four years. The Boeing 747 was still the standard airplane for commercial travel. The idea of a World Wide Web was far-fetched, and the idea that one could access it from a device the size of a Pop-Tart was science fiction. Koyaanisqatsi is a Hopi word meaning “life out of balance”; in the forty years that followed, humanity seemed to take the title as a challenge. You think this is out of balance? Buddy, you don’t know the half of it!
Now that Koyaanisqatsi’s distinctive visuals and iconic score have filtered into the public consciousness through Scrubs jokes and Madonna music videos, some might see it as dated, or even quaint. Technology has advanced so quickly that it dates media from five years ago, let alone forty; it takes a special kind of person to be awestruck by footage of a hot dog packaging plant, and there are probably less of them now than there were in the 80s. On a darker note, the climate crisis hanging over our collective heads is likely to throw life further out of balance than anyone could have imagined in 1982; describing life forty years ago as “out of balance” is like calling World War I “the war to end all wars.” But despite all that has changed, Koyaanisqatsi remains a marvel: not just because of its cinematography and score, but because it embodies everything wonderful and terrible about mankind’s place in the world.
Koyaanisqatsi is something of a Rorschach test, reflecting the viewer’s attitudes towards nature and progress back at them. Some see the film as an unheeded warning, tracing the dread and terror of the present day back to a fundamental imbalance with nature. Others see a sincere, if complicated, tribute to all that humans have managed to achieve in a fairly short period of time. Still others see a film that undercuts its environmentalist message by depicting the decidedly neoliberal pleasures of a world in perpetual motion. Reggio, for his part, rejected any one reading of the film, insisting that he simply wanted to create an experience for the audience to interpret as they please. While Reggio clearly has his own beliefs – the title alone gives the game away – he’s correct that Koyaanisqatsi defies any one didactic interpretation.
There’s plenty of material for a pessimistic, human-negative reading of Koyaanisqatsi. The first human figures the movie shows us are the ominous silhouettes of the ancient Horseshoe Canyon pictographs, accompanied by the score’s funereal pipe organ and droning chants. From there, the camera lingers on shots of nature, only gradually revealing the presence of humans – cultivated rows of tulips, or the wake left in the water by an unseen boat – in a way that creates a strange sort of dread. Soon, trucks cough up clouds of dust; factories puff smoke into the air; in the desert, an atomic bomb explodes. It all comes to a head with the demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in St. Louis, which once represented the future of urban renewal before devolving into crime and squalor. Over blaring horns and the wordless gasps of a choir, the gray concrete behemoths of Pruitt-Igoe crumble into dust – and the last traces of an idealistic dream crumble alongside it.
But if Koyaanisqatsi thinks so little of mankind, what does one make of “The Grid?” Perhaps the movie’s most famous sequence, “The Grid” is one of the most breathtaking tributes to human ingenuity ever filmed. Over the dizzying, euphoric rush of the score, traffic lights become a choreographed dance, a conveyor belt at a Twinkie factory sends the camera flying through a supermarket, and streaks of red and white headlights rush along the highway like blood cells through a vein. A closer look suggests possible social commentary – the focus on processed foodstuffs like hot dogs and Twinkies, as well as a lingering shot of a Vegas billboard, might serve to highlight something tawdry and artificial about modern life – but it’s hard to watch “The Grid” without feeling a glow of pride. Life may be out of balance, but it can still be beautiful.
When it comes to human progress, Koyaanisqatsi is ambivalent in the true sense of the word: not indifferent, but split between two strong, contradictory emotional responses. It laments the effect humanity has had on the environment, but it’s also fascinated by what’s been built in its place; it’s amazed by what humans have done, and frightened of what they might do next. As the possibilities and dangers of the future become clearer with each passing day, some might see their own view of progress in this movie. It might even provide hope – of a sort – for those who have run out of wonder to spare.
If Koyaanisqatsi can be summed up in a single image, it would be the one that occurs not long before “The Grid”: the full moon, huge and luminous in the night sky, rising and drifting behind a skyscraper, as though it’s being slowly pulled along by a string. Not only is it gorgeous to look at, it comments on everything mankind has wrought, good or bad. Humanity has left its mark on almost every square inch of land – heck, even on the Moon – but eventually humans will be gone, just like the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, and the Moon will still be here. The Earth will bear some scars for a while, but it will carry on all the same. Balance will be restored. There are many things that humanity can change, but it cannot change that. The question Koyaanisqatsi raises, then, is not “is humanity destroying nature?”, but “when humanity destroys itself, will it have all been worth it?” Some may say no, and some may say yes – and one way or another, watching this film may change their mind.