Environmental documentaries are on the rise. From David Attenborough’s Our Planet to Leonardo di Caprio’s Ice on Fire, our screens are brimming with new films and series that urge humanity to take care of the Earth and slow down climate change, in the hope we’re still on time to avoid some of the most nefarious effects of the climate crisis.
Many of these documentaries make their case compellingly and are must-sees for anyone who wants to understand what’s going on with our planet at the moment.
Nevertheless, despite plenty of newer and more updated films and TV series, one of the most visually powerful documentaries on climate change is still Koyaanisqatsi, a 1982 experimental film directed by American filmmaker Godfrey Reggio.
Koyaanisqatsi is a visual meditation on how technology wreaks havoc on the natural world consisting mainly of portraits, time-lapse, and slow-motion footage of different people and landscapes across the United States, glued together by a mesmerizing soundtrack by Philip Glass. Climate change is never explicitly mentioned in the film. Nonetheless, the documentary can be an inspiring starting point for reflecting on global warming and the relationship between humankind and nature at large.
Here, I grouped three reasons you should give Koyaanisqatsi a chance during your next movie binge, even if it’s an arty film from the Eighties with no dialogue or plot.
1) It’s aesthetically stunning
First off, the 1982 Reggio’s experimental film is still visually stunning. The cinematography by Ron Fricke captures both the beauty of nature and the somewhat riveting aggressiveness of human intervention.
For example, in this time of flight-shame, just have a look at the magnificence of the scene where a Boing 747 is taxiing at Los Angeles International Airport, advancing almost ethereally on the tarmac, sort of a 2001's monolith on wheels, accompanied by the transcendental music of Philip Glass.
2) It doesn’t try to convince its viewers
While most of the contemporary environmental documentaries state their case explicitly, Koyaanisqatsi doesn’t really have a thesis to bring forward. Godfrey Reggio isn’t trying to convince us of anything.
Yes, “Koyaanisqatsi” means “unbalanced life” in the Hopi language and that’s a hint on how to interpret the film but, actually, Reggio wanted to leave his masterpiece without any title (understandably, the producers convinced him otherwise).
With the sheer power of its images, Koyaanisqatsi shows that the relationship between humankind, technology, and nature is a complex and multidimensional problem, and that no simple narrative that pitches “bad, polluting technology” versus “good nature” can make it justice.
3) It has good faith in what humanity is able to accomplish
Of his documentary, Godfrey Reggio said that “for some people, it’s an environmental film. For some, it’s an ode to technology. [...] It depends on who you ask.”
The interpretative openness of the film is confirmed by some reviews it received when it was released.
In his 1983 review, the high priest of film criticism Roger Ebert wrote that “all of the images” in the documentary are beautiful, even those of “man despoiling the environment.” The shots of the expressways, for example, are “two-edged.” On the one hand, they’re an instance of life “out of control” but, on the other, they exemplify the humankind’s ability to overcome incredible challenges.
It’s “open to all sort of contradictory interpretations,” echoed the New York Times’ Vincent Canby.
This “two-edged” approach of the movie highlights the unbalancedness of our relationship with nature but it also implies a certain faith in what our species is able to accomplish.
Bonus track: Koyaanisqatsi Remixed
If you want to experience an (even quirkier) take on Koyaanisqatsi, you can have a look at “On Exactitude in Science,” a 2017 video installation by Irish artist Alan Butler.
The artwork is made of two screens. On one, we see Koyaanisqatsi playing, on the other, a shot-by-shot remake of the documentary realized modding the video-game Grand Theft Auto 5.
It makes for an alienating yet thought-provoking meditation on the role of humankind in this time of climate "challenge."
Credit header image: Koyaanisqatsi