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Blu-ray Review: The Qatsi Trilogy – The Criterion Collection

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The Films

Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi Trilogy could serve as a jumping-off point for a number of complex, nuanced and enlightening discussions about globalization and the nature of our modern world, but the films themselves don’t exactly serve this function on their own. The textual content of each of these films is pretty thin, able to be summed up succinctly in the surface-level translations of the Hopi titles — Koyaanisqatsi (“life out of balance”), Powaqqatsi (“life in transformation”) and Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”). The films’ propulsive, striking images hammer away at their respective thesis statements, restating and restating without ever digging deeper.

Qatsi Trilogy

That said, the first two films in the trilogy are extraordinary cinematic experiences, audiovisual feasts that overwhelm with their staggeringly beautiful images and all-consuming scores. Reggio’s images, captured beautifully by cinematographers Ron Fricke, Graham Berry and Leonidas Zourdoumis, of busy highways, deserted deserts, throbbing crowds and blindingly bright cityscapes are stunning. Philip Glass’s scores completely live up to their legendary status, often superseding even the visuals with their ability to arrest a viewer’s attention.

Koyaanisqatsi surveys the northern hemisphere while Powaqqatsi looks at the southern hemisphere. While the influence of technology is far more pervasive in the former, the threat of industrialization is still intensely felt in the latter, and old ways of life are being threatened in both. Explicating the films’ ideas beyond that point seems a bit futile, but there’s no denying the power of the imagery in the moment.

As for Naqoyqatsi, made two decades after the first entry, one would be better off skipping it entirely. Reggio portrays a world where technology has completely run roughshod over humanity, and its apocalyptic viewpoint might be provocative if the film wasn’t such a garish, ponderous chore to sit through. The glorious 35mm photography of the first two films has been replaced with a mishmash of found footage and ugly CG. Glass’s score, which features cello selections from Yo-Yo Ma, helps it all go down a bit easier, but Reggio is no avant-garde filmmaker.

The Blu-ray Discs

Each film is granted a 1080p high definition presentation on its own disc. The first two films are presented in 1.85:1, while Naqoyqatsi is in 1.78:1. This is a trio of superb transfers, especially for the first two films, which both look exceptionally film-like. Colors are vibrant, detail is strong and grain is natural and unaltered. Koyaanisqatsi has a few instances of print wear and slight damage, but otherwise, both offer striking presentations. Naqoyqatsi isn’t quite as impressive, due to its stock footage source material, which clearly came from inferior elements much of the time. It’s still a clean digital transfer, presenting it in the best possible light.

The soundtracks for both films are in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and each one is a demo-quality track; the Glass scores are presented with impeccable clarity and deeply immersive use of the surrounds.

Special Features

Each disc features a number of extras, some ported over from the previous DVD releases, and some newly produced by Criterion. On the Koyaanisqatsi disc, we get new interviews with Reggio and Fricke, a multimedia campaign Reggio spearheaded to combat invasion of privacy, a 40-minute demo version of the film, shot in 1977 on 16mm, and an old making-of from the original MGM DVD. Powaqqatsi includes a piece where Reggio discusses his philosophical and filmmaking influences, his 1992 short film Anima Mundi and an archival clip on the trilogy from a 1989 public TV show. Another MGM making-of carryover is included. On Naqoyqatsi, a new afterword from Reggio sums up the trilogy, while previously available extras include a brief making-of, a 2003 panel discussion and a conversation between Glass and Yo-Yo Ma. Each disc also includes its respective film’s theatrical trailer. Rounding out the set is a booklet with essays by Scott MacDonald and Bill McKibben and a piece on the scores by John Rockwell.

The Bottom Line

Whether or not the films work as intellectual exercises, the sheer visual and aural power of at least the first two makes this set come highly recommended.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.