ProsStunning visual imagery, excellently paired with Phillip Glass's brilliant sound track. I cannot think of the last time I saw a movie that so synergistically married images and sounds.
ConsThis film can be daunting and inaccessible if you just pick it up off the shelf without receiving some pre-viewing background. There are excellent write-ups online at popular movie review sites which will clue you in to what to expect. Essentially, Koyanaasqatsi is not a generic movie that adheres to normal standards of comprehensibility and narrative. That being said, Koyanaasqatsi does eventually reveal a narrative, but it is one assembled from rhythms, beats, agitating patterns of light and excess and overpopulation. The audience is expected to fall into rhythm with these visions and therein commune with the message of the film.
I felt that Koyanaasqatsi attempted to visually prove the untenability of certain aspects of modern life by offering a comprehensive image of the industrialized world. This alternate perception, whose inclusive breadth lent it an omniscient flavor, is perhaps inaccessible to many people locked in the daily grind and filtering all of their experience through an insular consciousness. Therefore, watching the movie and hearing the accompanying score might allow some people a new vantage that they could not alone have achieved. The wide lens shots, whose sheer vastness dwarfs the humans within them, give insight into the state of civilized man that a person bereft of imaginative faculty could not otherwise attain. Instead of seeing your small track of world through two eyes, the sheer density and multiplicity of humanity is suddenly forced upon you.
Several visual metaphors seemed to be implied by the rapid blurring of distinction between the mechanistic environs inhabited by humans and computer chips presented in the final quarter of the film, perhaps suggesting humans have been so devalued and their labor so commodified that their cities have become the power cells of computer chips, such as those whose internal sacrifices powered the doomed shuttle. I found the opening scenes of undisturbed nature to contrast nicely with the tediously regimented mega-cities later, but it brought to mind a question that has always bothered me: Whether man, in being an extension of nature, can truly do anything unnatural, or whether he is so oblivious to the motions of the cosmos that unpleasant or seemingly abnormal things are only apparently wrong. Because of this personally unsolved inquiry, I found the early scenes of perfectly clean and harmonious nature, assuming they were intended to keep in the viewer's mind an image of what has been defiled and abused by modernization, to be a little hollow in their meaningfulness. Yet I still appreciated the untroubled expansiveness of these natural scenes in comparison to the self-choking sprawl that comprised the bulk of the film.
The determination of identity via specialization seemed to be touched upon, when several common seeming people in the center of the film, curiously plucked from the seething throng, were shown in succession, until finally the camera focused on the stoic face of a fighter pilot for a significantly longer period of time. It is difficult for me to determine whether or not I liked that scenes of frighteningly large crowds were juxtaposed with fleeting images of faces, and that randomly a couple could be seen eating a meal standing up and sometimes without talking, and that a lone machine operator in a room of flashing lights was shown smoking a cigarette and looking into the camera, seeming essentially scared. I liked these touches in the sense that I felt a great deal of personal resonance with the meanings and messages behind them, and it begged the question of what it is to be a solitary particle within a great uproar, yet it was also very disturbing for its explicitness. Before viewing the film, when I tried to imagine the modern Koyanaasqatsi I would see large, unreal cities with trapped denizens that nevertheless made no visible impression on the globe seen from space. And when I tried to imagine all of humanity at once, attempting to account for all locales and cultures, I had a relatively clear picture of general action and unknowable crowds. Yet watching Koyanaasqatsi, I saw each face in the head-on crowds in detail, and the images were even more compellingly human than those I had conjured myself. The images' edges were no longer cloudy but sharp and mercilessly rendered, and the entire scene seemed sadder for it. I did not like the power of the images used in the sense that it made more pronounced my fear of the fragility of a system in which so much immeasurable and reactive potential is crammed into such small spaces. It seems combustible even before the human elements of dissent, anger and agitation are considered.
I also found the film to be tendentious, because such scenes showing impossible numbers of indistinct people working away like drones, funneled through labyrinths like fuel cells, made anonymous simply by the logistics of their various habitats, accompanied by dizzyingly frenetic music and sped up to induce nausea, it seems to me, can only be taken as evidence of madness and impending disaster. That is not necessarily a bad thing, and a film with as apocalyptic a title as Koyanaasqatsi must be expected to drive home a point fervently.