Twenty years after launching his wordless, impressionistic trilogy about the state of the world with the cult hit “Koyaanisqatsi” and 14 years after the second installment, “Powaqqatsi,” Godfrey Reggio has completed his vision with “Naqoyqatsi.” Possessed of another outstanding wall-to-wall score by Philip Glass but rather fuzzy in its message, entry differs from its predecessors in that roughly 80% of its images are derived from existing sources and have been “tortured and recontextualized” to unusual and sometimes extreme effect. Some of this, especially in the first third, is mesmerizing, but Reggio’s abstract notions about globalism, technology, militarism and so on produce reactions that function principally on the level of a head trip. Fans of the earlier pictures, Green Party adherents, aging hippies and anti-corporate students form the principal audience base.
Deriving his titles from Hopi language terms, Reggio devoted his first film to the philosophical idea of “life out of balance” and his second to illustrating First World exploitation of the Third World. “Naqoyqatsi,” as translated in the closing credits, means “A life of killing each other,” “War as a way of life” or “Civilized violence,” and the general thrust of the filmmaker’s lush, beautiful image-making seems to be that the proliferation of technology is changing existence on this planet in ways we can only begin to imagine, accelerating life and facilitating the means to destroy. Pic is divided into three “movements,” and whereas Reggio previously traversed the globe in order to find his expressive images, here he has stuck mostly to the United States and concentrated on frequently familiar stock footage, TV clips and other totemic visuals. These have been distorted, computerized, polarized, recolorized, reanimated, slowed down and otherwise contorted in ways that inarguably make for a new way of looking at them.
Aptly beginning with Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Tower of Babel,” Reggio explores the extent to which the world is becoming dominated by technology, numerical and digital systems, communication devices, DNA coding and many other manifestations of wiredness. Glass’ customarily driving and repetitive score works to mesmerizing effect, and is deeply enjoyable in its own right throughout.
Middle section is dominated by images of physical exertion and expression, mostly through athletic competition but also via the stock market, betting and the celebration of celebrity. This oblique critique of contempo obsessions is mild, however, compared with the final act, which in an admittedly powerful but also very familiar way signals (via nuclear blasts, marching soldiers, et al.) the great extent to which human endeavor is devoted to self-destruction, or at least its potential.
That Reggio uses the most high-tech means to deliver a cautionary commentary on high technology is an easily digested paradox. More problematic, as it has been from the beginning of the trilogy, is the way his tweaking of images of pain, suffering, tragedy and physical devastation overweeningly aestheticize the experiences he depicts. The way Reggio presents them, all earthly events are exaggeratedly picturesque before anything else, an approach that undeniably creates a feast for the eyes and, with the constant Glass accompaniment, the ears, but just as certainly limits his credibility as a polemicist for the causes to which he has devoted his cinematic life.
Technically, pic is a polished gem.