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USA 2003
Directed by
Godfrey Reggio
89 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Synopsis: The third and final chapter of the Qatsi trilogy, a visual chronicle of humankind’s impact on Earth and itself.

Although the third installment of a cinematic magnum opus, appreciation of Naqoyqatsi does not depend on familiarity with what has gone before. In fact, if you have not seen either Koyaanisqatsi (1982) or Powaqqatsi (1988) you are more likely to be gob-smacked by the stunning combination of cinematography and music that characterizes the series. If you have, this closing chapter, although utilizing the same combination of sound and image, is a considerable departure and will well-reward you.

Koyaanisqatsi was, needless to say, an outstanding film, contrasting the worlds of Nature and Culture (the title is a Hopi Indian word meaning "life out of balance"). Aside from the powerful message it communicated about Western values, technically, it was a benchmark film, seductively combining a breathtaking array of imagery with Philip Glass’s hypnotically cyclical score. Powaqqatsi was less impactful. Methodologically, it was more of the same and the shift of focus, the impact of First World technology and values on Third World cultures tended to simply be an illustration of the already well-known negative effects of "globalisation" on socio-cultural diversity.

Remarkably, it has been 20 years since the original film. Has the world changed for better or worse? Naqoyqatsi argues for the latter. There is no more Nature, there is only technology. If previously Reggio wanted to demonstrate conflicting values, now everyday life is war. War here is meant in both the literal and the metaphoric sense. Much of the film is given to imagery of a militaristic and literally violent nature but in a post S11 this is about war between cultures, between humanity and technology, between past and future, or as another masterly cinematic reflection on capitalist culture, Metropolis has it, between hand and brain.

The film is divided into 3 broad movements, paraphrasable as: the digitisation of the analog; competition as the supreme value; and, the accelerated life. For most viewers this will not be particularly important and it is arguable whether this assemblage of imagery coheres into a sustainable thesis. For me, it worked best at a "species" level, when it looked at humankind the same way we look at ants or sharks, in an observational, generic way. It was less successful when it strayed onto more contemporary (and thereby datable) iconic imagery. The Stalins and Maos of this world are over-exposed, not to mention Madonna and Elton John.

Whether or not one agrees with Reggio’s thesis, influenced as it is by Ivan Illich’s Tools of Conviviality and Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society, both of which critique the dominance of technological efficiency over humanistic values, time will tell (the film ends on a hopeful note, but then it had to didn’t it?). What is indisputable, however, is the outstanding way that the imagery has been manipulated (presumably Reggio came to terms with the irony of this) and re-contextualized. Whereas the previous films used specially shot footage, Naqoyqatsi reprocesses stock footage with every resource available to the modern computer artist. The results are visually entrancing and anyone who is involved with or interested in the visual arts should not miss the remarkable result.




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