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Naqoyqatsi is the long awaited third film in the Qatsi trilogy, which director Godfrey Reggio began in the early 1980s.

The Qatsi movies are feature-length, non-narrative films. They consist only of stunning visuals and heavy music from minimalist composer Phillip Glass. And yet, what keeps them from merely being 90-minute experiments is that each movie has form and structure. They show that film can be composed and arranged like music, instead of telling a story like a book.

If you’ve never seen one, go see Naqoyqatsi or rent one of the other two (Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi are the predecessors) for an amazing experience.

Message or Medium

Squished faces may unlock a mystery of Naqoyqatsi
Squished faces may unlock a mystery of Naqoyqatsi

Each of the three films has a message. The message is approximated in the Hopi language, and the resulting Hopi word becomes the title of the film. The first two mean, roughly, “life out of balance” and “a way of life that consumes other ways of life.” Naqoyqatsi, roughly translated, means “life as war.”

The messages in the films’ titles have never been completely convincing, but they do provide food for thought and a launchpad for starting a conversation about the films. Naqoyqatsi is no different. Although there are moments where “war-life” makes sense as a title, the film doesn’t necessarily make its case throughout the duration.

In fact, it is the little one-liners in the film — and not the overriding themes — that are the most noteworthy in reference to the title. One scene shows two sprinters in slow-motion. Their faces are contorted in the exertion of competition. Both runners are wearing jerseys that say “USA” and “Goodwill Games.” It’s ironic that an event in the name of “Goodwill” could inspire such fierce competition. It’s even more ironic that both runners are on the same team.

The beauty of the Qatsi movies is that you don’t have to buy into the message to appreciate them. They can be viewed as pure composition and form — film as music. They are symphonies made of images and sound, and not just sound alone.

Strange New World

Naqoyqatsi sets itself apart by being darker than the other two, both literally and metaphorically. Where the other films had footage shot in bright daylight, Naqoyqatsi almost exclusively uses footage that has been run through a computer. Landscapes and people are shown in negative or with solarization filters, the result being a world that never sees the sun.

It also is the first film in the trilogy to use images created specifically for the film. (For example, zeroes and ones form a three-dimensional wormhole through which the “camera” flies.) This is a mixed blessing. It frees Reggio to make his visual points more directly, but by using those tricks it feels like he’s cheating. At least in the previous films, the message was backed up by “evidence” from the real world. Whether you believed life was out of balance, the visual case was built from photographs of the world, and not from digital pixels.

Reggio adopts a convention that seems to have sprung from a mistake, rather than deliberate design. Every person that appears in Naqoyqatsi — there is footage of soldiers, of babies, of athletes and movie stars — appears flattened. Everyone is fatter and pudgier than they should be. I happen to know that there is an adjustment to be made when converting video to computer displays, without which images can appear flattened. Was this a mistake that Reggio later justified as artistic vision? Combined with some of the borderline Luddite images in the film (a mushroom cloud cuts to a computer keyboard), the squished people make me wonder if Reggio doesn’t understand the computer technology he was forced to use in order to make Naqoyqatsi.

Play it Again, Phil

After 25 minutes of skepticism, I was finally won over by Naqoyqatsi. The music and images became too engrossing. The musical structure started to coalesce into something recognizable, and I was again enjoying a Qatsi.

I still say that Naqoyqatsi is the weakest of the three films, but I reserve the right to change my mind after I see it again, which I can’t wait to do.

It also deserves a recommendation, particularly for fans of the series, or for anyone who can’t imagine what a non-narrative film might look like.