“Koyaanisqatsi” is a movie devoid of any plot, character, or narrative structure, with a title that is notably difficult to pronounce. On top of that, at first sight, the movie is deemed to have consisted of random clips of urban life. Hence, it is no surprise that one will face hurdles in finding a single reason to watch it. But, in a true sense, “Koyaanisqatsi” has excellent potential to be a cult classic. Godfrey Reggio, an unconventional director, has portrayed the ugly truth behind human civilization with fantastic cinematography.

 An architectural review of Koyaanisqatsi - Sheet1
Poster of the movie “Koyaanisqatsi” _© IMDB

Koyaanisqatsi- in a nutshell:

As we enter the Koyaanisqatsi world, where moral decay and imbalance rule dictatorially- hypnotizing music surrounds us. The beginning of “Koyaanisqatsi” features stunning natural imagery, including vast canyons, endless deserts, and a planet devoid of humans. Images are fast up to show clouds racing through the sky and up the sides of mountains, decorating the landscape with their shadows. Then the film switches to shots of factories, expressways, and smokestacks.

Long aerial vistas of the natural environment, including cloudscapes, ocean waves, and the Monument Valley landscape made famous by the 1950s westerns, open the first act of Koyaanisqatsi. The picture gradually incorporates signs of humanity, such as power lines, mines, and atomic blasts. The tempo and visual intensity build up after about 30 minutes – yes, this movie needs dedication, focus, and complete capitulation – as some fascinating imagery of abandoned housing estates being demolished feeds into urban traffic scenes, portrayed in either slow motion or quick time-lapse. We observe people rushing onto trains and elevators, making their way onto hotdogs and Twinkies in a food plant, and jumbo planes taxiing at LAX. The archival film of a NASA test rocket bursting after takeoff in 1962 provides the ideal climax, as the camera follows the last bit of flaming debris as it falls to earth.

 An architectural review of Koyaanisqatsi - Sheet2
Movie scene: Traffic time lapse_©Koyaanisqatsi

Message from the maker:

At first glance, the movie can be viewed as an archetype environmental film, a transforming reflection on the existing mismatch between people and the environment that sustains them (in the Hopi language, “Koyanaanis” means turmoil, and “qatsi” means life). Reggio has rightfully refrained from elaborating on the film’s precise meaning; in fact, he unsuccessfully attempted to remove the title. (Incidentally, Francis Ford Coppola’s last-minute assistance was the only thing that allowed it to enter mainstream theatres.) Reggio is assuming that we’ll understand the message right away. And the news is that while nature is excellent, American civilization is a terrible despoiler causing “mad life.” 

In a 2002 interview, Reggio stated, “It’s supposed to convey an experience, rather than an idea” (included with the DVD as a unique feature). “It serves as an environmental video for some people. Some see it as a tribute to technology. Some folks think it’s a piece of crap. Or it profoundly affects people. Depending on who you talk to. The goal of the journey is to get there.”

 An architectural review of Koyaanisqatsi - Sheet3
Movie scene: Human crowd_©Koyaanisqatsi

The moving composition:

The film’s slow motion, time-lapse, quick action, close-ups, and long hallucinogenic vistas are all expertly crafted. The cloud and sea content is familiar, yet the city scenes are untamed, harsh, and profoundly moving. On urban streets, the lights from passing cars sometimes resemble a lava flow and other times resemble self-propelled jelly beans. A sequence of large structures being torn down gets so stunningly gorgeous that it drains the images of any meaning. The basic principles of composition: Symmetry, Hierarchy, Rhythm, and Repetition- were present thoroughly. The cinematographer captured every frame with excellent skill. 

 An architectural review of Koyaanisqatsi - Sheet4
Movie scene: The amazing framing of nature and man-made object_©Koyaanisqatsi

The Concept:

Koyaanisqatsi- a theatre of capitalist innovation or, more specifically, its tragedy.”

According to Mr Reggio, the movie’s title is a Hopi Indian phrase that means “life out of balance,” which is what “Koyaanisqatsi” aims to convey. It begins with scenes that depict the planet emerging from flames before transitioning into a lengthy, poetic piece made up of gorgeous aerial photographs of the Southwest, notably of its deserts and, in particular, of dear old Monument Valley.

The movie eventually shows how man has used the earth’s resources and natural beauty. Although the title “Koyaanisqatsi” appears to be an unambiguous indictment when translated as “life out of balance,” Mr Reggio and his collaborators intended the film to be a stimulus for thought. The movie’s real point is that life has been out of balance ever since the earth was created, and the imbalance is just another definition of life.

 An architectural review of Koyaanisqatsi - Sheet5
Movie scene: The tremendous skyscrapers_©Koyaanisqatsi

The Metaphors and A Reminder:

The fast-paced scenes of human transportation and digital entertainment are set against “The Grid,” which mimics Alice’s Wonderland’s structured absurdity but with no wonder. Instead, masses of individuals move in a single direction to fulfill their parts in our civilisation’s tragic comedy, with Microdata, KFC, and Sony towering over them. As people discover the camera, we feel like voyeurs, invading a different world only to realize that this is our own.

Mr Glass’s menacing score, which is frequently purposefully, angrily oppressive, is playing behind these pictures. A choir of voices repeatedly repeats the movie’s title at the start until one finally masters how to say it without skipping any words. When translated in the end credits, the Hopi prophecies that the chorus repeats throughout the movie — such as “If we dig precious things from the earth, we will invite tragedy” — sound like raw material for Woody Allen.

Movie scene: The night vibrance_©Koyaanisqatsi

Final Words:

The movie “Koyaanisqatsi” is slick, innocent, stylish, irritating, and at times extremely beautiful, and if it were a book, it would look fantastic on a coffee table. “Koyaanisqatsi” makes us take it more slowly. The final rocket launch offers a respite from the hysteria after the suffocating experience of the congested streets. Even this experience is disturbing because, rather than looking to nature for comfort, humans have discovered technological stability. Overall, the movie is an 87-minute visual and aural meditation on the state of civilization in America.


Cine Experimental / Koyaanisqatsi / (1982) (2017) YouTube. Available at: https://youtu.be/v6-K-arVl-U?t=75 (Accessed: November 11, 2022). 

My favorite film: Koyaanisqatsi (2011) The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2011/dec/15/my-favourite-film-koyaanisqatsi (Accessed: November 11, 2022). 

Canby, V. (1982) ‘Koyaanisqatsi,’ back to psychedelia, The New York Times. The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1982/10/04/movies/koyaanisqatsi-back-to-psychedelia.html (Accessed: November 11, 2022). 

Ebert, R. (no date) Koyaanisqatsi Movie Review & Film Summary (1983): Roger Ebert, movie review & film summary (1983) | Roger Ebert. Available at: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/koyaanisqatsi-1983 (Accessed: November 11, 2022). 

Sebode, I. (2022) Koyaanisqatsi, or a tale of destruction, Varsity Online. Available at: https://www.varsity.co.uk/film-and-tv/20828 (Accessed: November 11, 2022). 


A young and enthusiastic architect from Bangladesh who has an immense interest in writing and content-making. She loves to connect with different people while sharing thoughts and ideas. Also, she is determined to be an ecologically concerned designer of tomorrow.