Koyaanisqatsi (1982): The Hyper-sensory Decadence of our Modern World

For me, film feels like an exercise in testing my own hypersensitivity to the world. It has the ability to stretch the function of each sense in order to induce a transcendent feeling, a sense of being able to experience things on a greater level. Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi is a technical exercise in invoking emotion and feeling through purely cinematic means, with no dialogue to reinforce a plot, no characters to guide a narrative. I’m very happy that I was able to see Koyaanisqatsi on a big screen, otherwise it just wouldn’t have had the effect on me that it did. This is no less than a spectacle.

From the very start, I was truly stunned and genuinely moved by the sheer colossal forces of nature that cinematographer Ron Fricke manages to capture, a beautiful yet terrifying perspective. The huge, imposing clouds engulf helplessly submissive masses of land, stretching far into the unimaginable distance. Slow motion and sped-up shots convey shadows dancing across the mountains, the seas passing endlessly, implying a sense of scale far beyond our own comprehension. The camera depicts nature in a way that makes it genuinely hard to believe that we inhabit the same earth as these phenomenal occurrences, which seem to live and breathe in a deeply entrenched rhythm that imitates life itself. Philip Glass’ soundtrack really effectively mimics the visual greatness of everything, in the classic style in which movie soundtracks complete a moment of sheer grandeur. It is with this solidified notion of nature’s ultimate omnipotence that the film moves onto its second act.

The modern consumerist society that we inhabit is portrayed in an equally huge and overwhelming way, implying that capitalism supposedly gives Mother Nature some competition. The city is as a fast-functioning, highly coded machine, every process, every manufactured product, every wave of people passing through the underground has its perfect place. For me, it is one of the most perfect on-screen representations of what it feels like to have autism in this modern consumerist system we strive to find our place in. The highly-kinetic time-lapse photography of the urban cityscape, married with the buzzing electronic score, emulates an overwhelming sensory experience that we are very familiar with, especially those who inhabit the bustling metropolitan jungles shown in the film. All to often the world seems like a constant challenge to keep up with this fast-paced, artificial world. In this world, everything seems balanced. The process of life in the urban environment continues day after day, with an ease that only comes with the cooperation of an entire population.

But the balance is not complete. The third act of the film takes a new perspective, a society polluting itself through its own ambitious endeavours. There are isolated shots of lonely figures, those who do not fit into the repetitively churning machine of society. The city seems to turn grey, nature is left stained and polluted. The phenomenal vibrancy and extravagance of the middle montage means nothing anymore in a world that has burned itself out. The film ends with a shot of a rocket ascending into the sky, as previously shown in the opening, yet this time we see it explode, burning away into a smoking carcass, falling and spinning towards the earth. An on-screen text shows the meaning of the film’s title:

Film programmer and writer Sophie Brown, who introduced the screening I went to, said that the title uses elements of the Native American language to not only invoke themes of colonialism and exploitation of indigenous land, but also to imply the inability to express a feeling or idea, reflecting the film’s depiction of the ongoing conflict between nature and mankind through purely cinematic means. Though Koyaanisqatsi was made in the 1980s, it still strikes a culturally relevant chord, especially taking into account our greater concerns about the growing climate crisis. The unsustainability of our modern way of living is slowly burning away at our existence, and there is an overwhelming urgency to somehow break this highly standardised system of capitalism in order to seek out a better way to live. Koyaanisqatsi is an extremely solemn reminder of the detrimental damage we are constantly causing to our planet and to our society. Through its demonstration of the sheer scale of the world and functionality of our existence, it emphasises that changing our fate will be no easy task, yet it is our only option.

For those of us with neurodiverse minds, we sometimes feel cast out of the system and left to battle alone with the flashing lights and booming noises of our artificially modified world. When we can fight it no longer, we have our meltdowns, exploding into emotions and burning out like the billowing fragments of the rocket. In this sense, this film can be read slightly differently from a more psychologically internal perspective, opening up a broader discourse on how the colossal deterioration of our planet’s functionality affects us individually. Autism is a complex thing to manage on a day-to-day basis, yet in the face of a dying world where little sympathy is given to those who don’t fit in, perhaps we are the ones who will be first to crumble.

Extremely euphoric yet devastating at the same time, Koyaanisqatsi is an overwhelming piece of art with an explosive influence that will last for however long we have left on the earth. Without saying a single word and without any characters, the film delivers a fundamental and urgent discourse on the unbalanced state of our modern world, at the same time achieving levels of cinematic artistry that few have been able to manage. The world is a very scary, imposing, profound, compelling and oppressive place, and to capture this immense perspective simply through the camera and editing process is unbelievably impressive. If anything, it stresses the need for a more sustainable system that is accessible for all, leaving no one behind to get lost in the void. Slowly but surely, the world is waking up and listening to the disenfranchised who deserve to survive as much as anyone. Survival is not an eternal prospect, yet if we take action, maybe we can hope to keep going for a little longer.

Score: 9/10

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