By Peter Tonguette

Peter Tonguette is a staff writer for The Film Journal. His writing has also appeared in Senses of Cinema and Bright Lights Film Journal. You can visit Peter Tonguette's personal review site here.


Naqoyqatsi (2002) concludes Godfrey Reggio's trilogy of "qatsi" films (the other two are Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, released respectively in 1982 and 1988; Naqoyqatsi has been in the making for a decade). Taken together, the films are a mammoth visual survey of a world marching blindly towards its own demise. Technology is the essential culprit in Reggio's terminal vision and the way it corrupts the earth, dilutes our humanity, and pollutes our brains in its various benign guises. More specifically, Reggio seems directly engaged with the maleficence of popular culture in Naqoyqatsi; an extended sequence integrates dozens of glimpses of American television programs--news events, commercials, movies, soccer matches--to weave a sort of toxic collective portrait of the imagery and information which inundates us on a daily basis.

Generally Reggio alters his footage, removing or adding color and very frequently slowing it down. The slo-mo material, in particular, achieves his desired effect: making strange imagery which not only is familiar but part of our visual lexicon--images from television, military formations, athletic competitions, daily interactions between people, even portraits of international leaders--as if to say, This is the world around us and how do you like it? The approach takes us out of the images, forcing us to consider what they mean and what Reggio means in his juxtaposition and alteration of them. When images of President Bush, Yassar Arafat, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela pass before us more or less successively, we must think about what the grouping implies.

Much of the film seems devoted to questioning various forms of human accomplishment, whether athletic (Reggio's montage essentially equates sports with training for warfare) or intellectual or industrial or technological. Taken together, Reggio's trilogy presents a nightmare portrait of a society slowly being drained of spontaneity and life, beaten down by the forces of regimentation, propaganda, and "progress"--achieving this vision more effectively than even Fritz Lang's revered Metropolis (1927), which quickly springs to mind as a reference point in narrative cinema due to its recent theatrical reissue. Even if one doesn't share this particular vision, or shares it but points to different sources of the current societal malaise than Reggio does, it's undeniably a product of a concerned, rather than nihilistic, perspective, which is itself a virtue in the current atmosphere.

My principle reservation with this film is that Reggio doesn't seem to recognize the aural possibilities of his form. Given the levels of visual innovation present in the "qatsi" films, it's disappointing that Reggio resists audio experimentation, instead relying on the scoring of Philip Glass to unify a film which desperately needs to extend the playfulness of the visual content to its use of sound.

Parenthetically, Naqoyqatsi is "presented by" Steven Soderbergh, who donated the bonus he received from Universal after the wild commercial success of his Erin Brockovich (2000) to help Reggio complete the film. He has now assured its release (albeit a quiet one) through Miramax, another indication of Soderbergh's commitment to challenging audiences, whether in his own work or through supporting the work of others.

                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002