Godfrey Reggio’s third Qatsi movie is not about what he thinks. The title, Naqoyqatsi, is a Hopi word meaning:
1. life of killing each other
2. war as a way of life
3. civilized warfare
Reggio turned to technology to explore this theme, showing how technology has become intertwined in human affairs so closely that we cannot tell ourselves apart from it. Technology has allowed the 20th century person to be so self interested we haven’t realized our change, and are oblivious to the consequences. Reggio then implies that this has lead us, or perhaps will still lead us to our downfall of accelerating violence.
Naqoyqatsi is well presented visually and audibly (it includes a Philip Glass score featuring Yo-Yo Ma). However, the movie is largely incoherent on first viewing, leaving the title as unexplained as the film, meanwhile failing to engage issues of technology relevant to people and society today, such as the digital divide. Part of this is due to Reggio’s story telling decisions, the most problematic of which is that his war and its participants are unclear, as is how to avert it. His movie is abstract enough from the modern human experience that it is hard to tell where we fit in. This works just fine if you can understand his movie as not being about us. Reggio himself calls his movie a tragedy, and when you place humanity as the tragic hero, with technology as its/our tragic flaw, the inevitable and beautiful gloominess of his civilized violence becomes a more interesting fiction.
I like Naqoyqatsi better if you if you look at the footage itself without Reggio’s intentions in mind. Reggio uses digital distortion rampantly, both making the film a visual adventure and creating a strong distancing effect. The soulful touch of the Glass’s music makes the footage seem even more alien, even though it is portraying images that we see daily on television. These effects allow Naqoyqatsi to show us what we look like to a nascently conscious network. In this light, the movie holds a vision of modernity uniquely portrayed and clutchingly relevant, given our closeness to these networks today.