Powaqqatsi (1988) / Documentary

MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences (contains an image of non-sensual graphic nudity)
Running Time: 99 min.

Director: Godfrey Reggio
Screenplay: Godfrey Reggio, Ken Richards

Review published January 28, 2014

Godfrey Reggio follows up 1983's Koyaanisqatsi with a very similar feature-length art-film documentary, Powaqqatsi, which continues his theme of how the advancement of industry and technology has resulted in humans living in conditions that take us further and further away from living in our natural state on Earth. As with his previous film, Powaqqatsi is a series of images set to the New Age music of composer Philip Glass, who blends in a bit more of the regional World flavor into the mix this time out, that gives us a narrative of juxtaposition that is meant to illustrate a certain point of view.

In Koyaanisqatsi, it showcases how manmade structures cannot compete with the beauty that is nature, and how the unearthing of metals and other materials from the Earth has made our living conditions less than what they could be had we continued to live in nature rather than exploit it. Powaqqatsi furthers this theme by showing lives in transition, particularly in developing countries of Africa and South America in which there are many people still living in rural areas that are mostly disconnected by the influences of the modern civilization as it exists in America, Europe and East Asia.

Perhaps what most people take away from Powaqqatsi, whether they get the point of view of Reggio or not, is its striking, slow-motion color photography and its lush, repetitively hypnotic musical score. While the music may dissipate from the mind within a few hours or days, the indelible shots of people's faces or the sweeping aerial shots of stunningly gorgeous locales will likely stay with you forever. The transition between rural community living and the squalor of the congested cities is broken up by a seemingly endless train rushing by, signifying not only the beginning of the industrial revolution. Reggio frames the shot with the train nearly obscuring a large tree behind it that we never see fully because it is perpetually obscured by train car after train car whooshing by, as if the advancements in technology are have created a permanent barrier to our ability to reconnect with the natural environs beyond them.

Though much of the footage in Powaqqatsi is no less impressive than Koyaanisqatsi, the "been there, done that" feeling of this follow-up makes it somewhat redundant for those who've see the first film in the "Qatsi" trilogy. It only offers a minor variation on the central theme of the blight of man vs. the beauty of nature, which suggests that those who choose to live harmoniously with nature can still live with beauty, happiness and community, while those who live in a state where it is all but completely absent must deal with the ugliness of isolation, steel and concrete, smog, filth, and urban decay. It also doesn't flow as well, seems far more slow (possibly due to constant slo-motion), and goes on about twenty minutes too long, with additional scenes that merely repeat previous images and points of view.

Reggio ends the film with the definition of the title, which is the Hopi word for an entity or way of life that consumes the life forces of other beings in order to further its own life. Reggio describes the film as a commentary on how the northern hemisphere's way of life is "consuming" the ways of life of those who live in the southern, which is an interesting concept in theory, but it is always the nature of societies to modernize, so what's the solution? 

While it will likely be forever overshadowed by its predecessor in terms of artistic and critical achievement, there's little question that this is an often compelling visionary work that offers plenty of heady questions to chew on well after the lovely but haunting images and melodies play out to credits.

-- Followed by Naqoyqatsi (2002)

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo