Now thirty years later, with more degrees, more knowledge, and more weariness about life under the sun, I watch Koyaanisqatsi anew with a discerning young friend who is the same age as I was when I first watched it. This lends itself to some reflection. The title means "life out of balance" in the Hopi language.
There is no narration, and voices only are heard as the credits run. The cinematography is everything and is impressive in its variety, depth, and scope. The theme is the relation of nature to culture, of the wild to the human and the domesticated, so to speak. We behold vistas of creation's grandeur and sublimity. The film begins very slowly with ulta-slow-motion footage of a rocket launch. Then scenes of dry mountains and deep ponds appear. There are no scenes from forests or jungles or icecaps.
Something is then blown up. A mountain falls--and we move into civilization, where humans touch nature. There is little emphasis on the achievements of man, but on his failures and miscalculations. All is overcrowded, much is ugly, workers are mere drones on assembly lines, and more.
Hopi "prophecies" are shown at the end of the film, giving the viewer the idea that they knew. They knew what would be lost. They knew what would come...
But these prophecies are quite vague and offer no hope. In this, the film is romantic about nature, forgetting about its redness in tooth and claw; in fact, animals are scarcely seen. Man is not measured by both his majesty and misery (Pascal), but by how he as despoiled nature.
The credits reveal that several social critics, such as the Christian sociologist, Jacques Ellul and the Catholic priest, Ivan Illich, have helped in inspire this documentary with no words. The score is by Phillip Glass, and is, of course, very repetitive, both in its slow scenes and in its speeded-up scenes of humans driving and bustling about. This waxes cloying after a few moments.
The technology, which is generally vilified in this film, is, to the contemporary eye, rather antiquated. People play huge, public video games, such as Pack-man. They stare at bulky and non-digitized television sets. There is not a laptop or cell phone in sight. Thus, the gap, as it were, between nature and culture has widened. Have we become "tools of our tools," as Thoreau said?