“Naqoyqatsi” is the final “Qatsi” trilogy installment from director Godfrey Reggio. The title is a Hopi word signifying “war as a way of life.” The film is preceded by “Koyaanisqatsi” (1983) and “Powaqqatsi” (1988). Yet, there is some question as to whether “Naqoyqatsi” can hang with these other masterworks. The first film had a beautiful and distinctive look created with incredible slow and fast motion shots of the world at large by Ron Fricke, the film’s cinematographer. Despite a new cinematographic team, film number two strayed not far from this format, but honed its focus on post-colonial existence. “Naqoyqatsi” is standing somewhere off to the side: the startlingly dissimilar black sheep in the set.
“Naqoyqatsi” is uncharted territory, as far as the trilogy is concerned. It fully embraces computers and television in a way previously belied by the simple and beautiful everyday imagery of the other two films. Comprised of 450 images, according to Reggio, it feels as though most of them must be stock footage from television, the previous films and even videogames. Also dotting the film’s visual landscape are computer-generated scenes that seem unprofessional and weak at the outset but in later scenes graduate to hackneyed and commonplace. Digital effects and overlays too, are no stranger in the film. For the first time in the trilogy, exposing celluloid just isn’t enough for Reggio. A microscope shot of wriggling sperm must slowly become a digitally affected shot of hundreds of wriggling, naked babies (perhaps where the film’s PG-13 rating comes from). As if this weren’t straight forward enough, corporate logos including Enron’s, and celebrity footage, including former successful 49ers quarterback Steve Young and the not-so-successful-anymore star of “Watching Ellie,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus, are included in the film’s over-use of stock footage.
But where the computer effects and archival images are somewhat of a failure, Reggio has not entirely forgotten the formula that gave beauty to his visions in the past. An amazing subtlety can be found in the slow motion, black and white portraiture of buildings and people near the beginning of the film. Though somewhat abstract, there is a gracefulness in the laughing, smiling faces that is akin to the numerous panning close-ups of giddy children posing for the camera in “Powaqqtsi.”
Phillip Glass’ unwavering attention to minimalist detail is again present in his work too – owing much to the fact that a great deal of the music is merely rewritten and arranged from the previous films. The music does include excellent new material as well. A beautiful cello solo, played by Yo-Yo Ma, and a soprano solo reminiscent of the track “Vessels” from the first film are among the offerings. As with the other films, the soundtrack is inseparable from the images. There is a certain music video quality to them that dictates the necessity of one for the other.
Reggio states in the DVD extras for “Powaqqatsi,” “I don’t feel that it’s contradictory or hypocritical to use the very medium that you’re questioning.” This statement very much informs and shapes “Naqoyqatsi.” Throughout the trilogy, Reggio has shown a world where the circumstance of being human has become one with a transition from the natural world into a world of technology. Translating the titles of the films in sequence yields a passage from “life out of balance” to “life in transition” and finally to “war as a way of life.”
Progressing beyond the simple graphical comparison of street maps and circuit boards in the first film, “Naqoyqatsi” steps heavy-handed into the very realm it condemns: the technological world. And yet the military imagery in this film is no more an indictment of mechanical warfare than those images of similar ilk in “Koyaanisqatsi;” the war that is being condemned is not between countries but between man and nature. But it is this same heavy-handed approach, saturated in digitally constructed images and stock footage, which breaks down the effectiveness of Reggio’s earlier formula of simplicity in presentation. Perhaps the subject dictates the approach, but in the end, watching “Koyaanisqatsi” twice is probably more enjoyable than being slapped with “Naqoyqatsi’s” bluntness.