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MGM Studios DVD presents
Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation (1988)

"It's not like we do the edit and then he responds with the music or that he does the music and then we respond with the edit. It's like a hand-in-glove operation, one medium motivating the other."
- Director Godfrey Reggio, on Philip Glass

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: September 16, 2002

Director: Godfrey Reggio

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: G for (some intense imagery)
Run Time: 01h:39m:36s
Release Date: September 17, 2002
UPC: 027616878946
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B+A- B

DVD Review

Powaqqatsi is the second film in Godfrey Reggio's "Qatsi" trilogy. Qatsi is the Hopi word for life, and Reggio's films offer a unique examination of existence. He takes documentary footage of people, nature, and technology, edits it together (employing frequent stylized techniques, including time-lapse photography, slow-motion, and compositing), and gives it new meaning. Images are accompanied by the music of composer Philip Glass, the score serving to accentuate the intended message as well as to entertain. Taken simply, these films could be considered lengthy, stylish music videos. Reggio, however, has so much more in mind. A communication critic if there ever was one, Reggio's films illustrate, through imagery devoid of narration, the unnatural modern world's destruction of the natural order of life.

1983's Koyaanisqatsi (meaning "life out of balance") focused on the Western Hemisphere, and on the effects computers and technology have on an already fast-paced existence, serving to unify the human race even as these things destroy individuality and cultural peculiarities. In Powaqqatsi, Reggio sets his sights on the Third World, where people still live largely apart from the influences of modernization.

The first portion of the film is all about a celebration of culture. Many have argued that these scenesódepicting laborers hard at word in the gold mines, the poor in markets trying desperately to buy enough food to live, men and women toiling at back-breaking laboróare intended as a glorification of poverty, of saying that the "old ways" were better. This is a plausible interpretation considering the next section, which speeds things up with time-lapse photography of a bustling city, where the old culture begins to slip away, sliding slowly towards the uniformity of the Western world. But Reggio isn't celebrating poverty, he's celebrating diversity. "Powaqqatsi" means "a way of life that consumes another," and Reggio sees the lives and cultures of his subjects transforming into the same, in his eyes, uniform technology-worshipping daily grind as examined in Koyaanisqatsi.

Glass contributes another remarkable score, coupling the images with varied world music and haunting vocalizing. His music is as much an acquired taste as Reggio's films, though, and even as a fan, I find his opening overture (set to footage of mud-covered workers in a mine) extremely trying. For the most part, however, Glass offers wonderful accompaniment to Reggio's images.

The "Qatsi" films demand a lot from the audience. If you sit back and watch passively, you'll likely quickly tire of the repetitive footage and frequent slow-motion photography. Engaging with the film, looking for the unspoken text amidst the sometimes haunting imagery, will be a much more rewarding experience.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Powaqqatsi looks pretty good on DVD. Colors look strong throughout, fine detail is very good, and blacks look very solid. Print flaws are occasionally apparent, with some graininess visible as well, but these deficiencies never really distract. I noticed some aliasing here and there, and a bit of digital noise, but on the whole, I was very impressed with the quality here, especially considering the woeful VHS versions I have seen previously.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This release of Powaqqatsi benefits from a DD 5.1 remaster, and the results are quite nice. The music of Philip Glass is the driving force of the film, and the remix expands his score nicely across all channels. LFE is decent when needed, otherwise, the score spreads across the front soundstage and into the rears, creating an immersive musical environment. It's likely the next best thing to seeing the film with a live orchestra.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

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

Extras Review: Extras are very similar to those included on the Koyaanisqatsi DVD. Once again, trailers for both that film and Powaqqatsi are included, along with a clip for the final chapter, Naqoyqatsi, to be released in fall 2002.

A 20-minute interview segment, featuring director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass, offers a bit of insight into the creation of one of these remarkable films. Both discuss the collaborative process of matching the music to the images. Reggio also explains what the film means to him, and he's quite adamant about the evils of technology and the computer as "the highest magic in the world; something that we're all in adoration of." Whether you agree with his views on technology or not, Reggio is an interesting man to listen to. Fans will welcome the duo's discussion of the forthcoming Naqoyqatsi, which looks to be the most interesting Qatsi film yet.

Amusingly, Spanish and French subtitles are included, despite the total lack of dialogue and title cards.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

A celebration of a way of life not long for this world, Powaqqatsi, like its predecessor, makes demands of its audience even as it criticizes their actions. This type of film (artistic, experimental) is not for everyone, but those open to it will no doubt be affected by Reggio's all-too-accurate social commentary.


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