The film sets out to show how mankind's life is out of balance, by contrasting the serenity of nature with the frenzied speed of city life. However, it's a film that undercuts itself every step of the way. Without that explanation of the title, it would be quite easy to see Koyaanisqatsi as a hymn to (and don't forget, it's a product of) the very technology it condemns. The shots of the city, often using fast motion, are like the nature shots at the beginning, often extremely beautiful. Ron Fricke, the director of photography, went on to direct his own non-narrative film, Baraka. There are images here you could frame. There's something undeniably thrilling about an overhead shot of a cityscape at night, little dots of colour - cars - racing along streets like corpuscles in the veins of some vast being. The impression is more of vitality than of unbalance and sickness. Koyaanisqatsi's imagery has been hugely influential, in advertising especially - as has Glass' score, his first for the cinema.
Koyaanisqatsi was very much a one-off, but it became the first of a trilogy. Powaqqatsi ("Life in Transformation") followed five years later, to considerably less impact. Again Reggio and Glass collaborate, though Fricke is no longer involved. (Graham Berry and Leonidas Zourdoumis share cinematographic duties.) This film compares shots of life in developing countries with those of the big cities. If fast motion was the keynote technique of Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio and his cameramen frequently use slow motion here, and some relatively early use of computer image manipulation. Glass' score incorporates world music elements, notably the whistles and drums in the opening sequence. Once again, the imagery is often staggering beautiful, but once again Reggio shoots himself in the foot. You could accuse this film of aestheticising poverty, with shots that would not look out of place in National Geographic, and I'm not sure that's the intention.
The trilogy was finally completed with Naqoyqatsi ("Life is War"), which premiered at the 2002 Venice Film Festival and will be released in the UK sometime this year. The CD of Glass' score is already in the shops.
MGM's DVD release, currently only available in a two-disc box set, has both films in anamorphic format, Dolby digital 5.1 sound, five menu language options and nine subtitle options. In case you're wondering why a film with no dialogue needs subtitles, they're used on the extras. The Koyaanisqatsi DVD includes a featurette, Essence Of Life including interviews with Reggio and Glass. The two men also appear in the Impact Of Progress featurette on the Powaqqatsi disc. Both discs contain the original trailers for both films.