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MGM Studios DVD presents
Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1983)

ko.yaa.nis.katsi (from the Hopi language), n. 1. crazy life. 2. life in turmoil. 3. life disintegrating. 4. life out of balance. 5. a state of life that calls for another way of living.
- from the American Hertitage Dictionary

Review By: Dan Lopez  
Published: September 09, 2002

Director: Godfrey Reggio

Manufacturer: DVCC
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (urban footage, nothing offensive)
Run Time: 01h:35m:20s
Release Date: September 17, 2002
UPC: 027616878939
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A+BA- B

DVD Review

Koyannisqatsi, like its creative namesake, is something quite unique and unexpected. Most films tell a narrative story, while some document a specific event, person, or ideal; regardless of genre, we are typically viewers who sit in silence, welcoming the material into ourselves. In this case, however, director Godfrey Reggio struggled to create what is, essentially, something a bit more interactive. Through a densely layered barrage of images presenting the general state of the modern world (or, at least, America), Koyaanisqatsi is only half full. What you see on the screen and what you hear with your ears (Philip Glass' brilliant and haunting score) is only truly complete when the viewer uses his or her mind to fill in the spaces. What do these images mean to you? What thoughts come to you as you watch them? In my opinion, this makes Koyaanisqatsi possibly one of the most immersive films in history, in a very literal sense, because the audience's thoughts, opinions, and views of the world they live in are as much a part of the experience as anything brought to the banquet by the filmmakers. I dare say that if all you see are 'pretty pictures' here, you might be missing the point.

Filmed and assembled between 1975 and 1983, the project was the first major undertaking by Godfrey Reggio, who had previously made a name for himself working on a highly memorable, disturbing, and provoking promotional campaign for the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union. As part of the Institute For Regional Education (located in Santa Fe, New Mexico), Reggio seemed to want to make important statements with a very powerful medium; a medium that has the power to reach virtually anyone. Entitled Koyaanisqatsi in order to, as Reggio puts it, leave it without any linguistic baggage, the project was long in a state of uncertainty until funding and distribution finally allowed it to see the light of day. The end result is probably one of the most important pieces of cinema ever made, though it rarely gets due credit.

To describe the film for those who haven't seen it is difficult, because it is so simplistic to just say, "Well, it's a lot of images of modern society and technology in montage format with no dialogue." It's an apt description, though, and perhaps the best one anyone could give in brief. The film is divided into four different sections. The first, and shortest, is a meditation on the natural world, with footage of mountains, lakes, caves, and cloudscapes. The second section, referred to as "Vessels," jarringly introduces the viewer to the modern world with footage of strip-mining operations, planes, cars, industrial complexes, and decaying ghettos. The third section, known as "The Grid," is perhaps the most famous section of the movie (also ceaselessly butchered for use in television commercials) in which quiet, subtle, nighttime footage of the modern American city is transformed into a blur of motion and light as the footage of everyday, urban activity is sped up to 10 or 20 times normal speed, highlighting the breathless pace people often set for themselves. The fourth and final section, slows down to a grim pace and becomes more personal, focusing on images of people both individually and in groups.

The long answer of what Koyaanisqatsi is largely depends on the individual, though that's not to say Godfrey Reggio was not without some intent here. Obviously not a fan of the modern obsession with technology as a means of daily life, he wants to test the comfort zones of people; poking and prodding them to admit the images here disturb them, or inspire them, or don't particularly affect them at all. For me, the film is a statement about the distance between ourselves and the world we live in; that we have become less dependant on each other and the planet that spawned us, and more dependant on gadgets and devices to get us through the day. Rest assured, the irony that I write this on a computer for publication on the Internet has not escaped me, but I believe technology can indeed be a productive part of a person's life without becoming the nourishment by which he or she lives. The key is: balance.

Koyaanisqatsi is the first in the 'Qatsi' trilogy, followed by Powaqqatsi, an examination of technological development in the third world, and in October 2002, Naqoyqatsi, an examination of how conflict and war define so much of our culture.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: To begin with, this DVD marks the first time since the laserdisc release that people will see Koyaanisqatsi in the proper aspect ratio with the proper composition which, surprisingly, adds a lot more than one might expect. The transfer itself is quite pleasing. While the original film has aged enough to have some grain, haziness, and physical flaws, the transfer manages to avoid any extreme problems. The colors are most improved, with the more brilliant scenes now even more vibrant, with a renewed clarity that's very nice to see. Obviously, some elements of the movie were stock footage to begin with, so some scenes are heavily damaged and aged even beyond the 1983 footage itself. In all, I doubt fans will be disappointed with this truly pleasing presentation.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Remastered into Dolby Digital 5.1, Philip Glass' eternally classic musical score sounds better than ever. Considering the score is an enormous percent of the film's impact, this upgrade not only allows further immersion into the movie, but also marks a considerable change in the technical dynamics. The end result is a soundtrack very auditorium-like, where the acoustics, especially the surround speakers, are designed to fill in ambience gaps. The few, sparse sound effects the film does get a bit of enhanced treatment as well, but that's pretty limited. The remaster does help, though, to energize an already superb soundtrack.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Interview with Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass
Extras Review: One extra on this disc that truly surprised me both by its inclusion (MGM's reputation is not exactly great with support of obscure/non-mainstream films) and by its high quality. I am referring to the excellent 22-minute documentary Essence Of Life,, which features current interviews (created for the DVD) with director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass. I've met Reggio a few times personally, and I'm glad to see he hasn't lost his intense, metaphysical personality. In the interview, he details the elaborate concepts behind his films, as well as briefly discussing his life in the Christian Brotherhood in New Orleans. At the same time, Philip Glass discusses how he came to be involved with Reggio and his opinions on how he wanted his music to function. Glass is really more than simply a composer for this film, and added much more to the editing and overall quality of the eventual release than composers typically do. During these interviews, there is intercut footage from Reggio's NMCLU ad campaign, designed to drive people in the late 1970s into awareness of technology's effect on civil rights and personal privacy.

Normally trailers aren't that big a deal on DVDs, but in this case, fans of Godfrey Reggio will probably go immediately to the trailer for the upcoming Naqoyqatsi, the final element of the "Qatsi" trilogy, which we have been patiently awaiting all these years. Exactly how wide its theatrical distribution will be remains to be seen. The original trailers for Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi are also present, but in quite aged and damaged condition.

Some purists might dislike MGM's decision to change the cover art from the traditional plain black into a more colorful one (a frame from the film in which the moon rises against a skyscraper) but I actually liked it. The back cover features a clever montage of shots from the film and the new look gives a better impression of the actual content of the movie than the rather monolithic appearance of the previous VHS and Laserdisc editions.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

Koyaanisqatsi begins and ends with the same image: cave paintings of enigmatic figures by ancient Americans. Ever since I first saw this film in the late 1980s, those figures seem to possess a silent something that makes them intuitively more impressive than all the sights of cityscapes and modern industry featured in the movie. As prophetic now as it was back then, Koyaanisqatsi, the first in the 'Qatsi' trilogy, is a timeless work, despite some of its moderately dated footage. Where does technology end and where do we, as people, begin? Part of the answer could be here, somewhere.


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