I confess straight off that I’m not a huge fan of nonnarrative film. Even the tritest, most hackneyed, old-fashioned nonsense strikes me as preferable to movies with no story at all. I haven’t a lot more patience with movies that try to make a point via a barrage of abstract images. It’s the sort of thing that strikes me as OK for an artsy short film, and it can work well within the confines of a narrative film—consider the “Star Ride” in Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) or the sequence that takes the viewer back to the very beginning of life in Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980). But a solid 90 minutes of stream-of-conscious imagery on any topic is likely to stretch my patience well beyond the breaking point. Such is the case with Godfrey Reggio’s Naqoycatsi, the title of which translates from the Hopi language as something like “war as life.”
This is the final third of his trilogy that began in 1983 with Koyaanisqatsi (“life out of balance”) and was followed in 1988 by Powaqquatsi (“life in transition”). The original film—with its fast-moving, time-lapse images of modern life—was a surprise hit that quickly became assimilated into mainstream cinema in bits and pieces. (Even today indie filmmakers do dearly love to stick a time-lapse shot of traffic streaking past into their films out of a fondness for art-house clichés.) I’m not saying that Koyaanisqatsi is bad; it’s merely not for me.
Technically, this latest is brilliant. The imagery is often mesmerizing—and even more often vaguely depressing (which seems to be the intent)—and its relationship to the Philip Glass score is ingeniously achieved. But in the end, for me, it’s just too much of a good thing being bombarded with an hour and a half of trippy images that appear to be lecturing me on how miserable, yet strangely beautiful, modern life is. Your mileage with this may vary, and I’d urge you to see it for yourself. What in this case I find mind-numbing may stike you as deeply profound. And I wouldn’t say you’re wrong if it does.