Runcible Blog

Meaningful Movie: An Oxymoron?

Lots of geeks and others are talking about the philosophical and religious issues that The Matrix movies have introduced, and frankly, those people are looking as goofy as the guys who prescribe to the "Jedi" religion or can speak Klingon and Elvish. Although there are some interesting questions raised in the Matrix films, they are really mostly style over substance. Topics like causality and objectivity provide thoughtful tangents, but they're spoiled by such ridiculous lines as "You never truly know someone until you fight them." The writers seem to have taken an introductory philosophy course and maybe memorized a few definitions. But The Matrix Reloaded's value isn't in its philosophy but rather its explosions, nifty special effects, and high intensity action.

Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance" or "crazy life"), on the other hand, deals with the melding of technology and nature without resorting to a single backflip or elaborate fight scene. In fact, there isn't any dialog or plot, either. I just bought Koyaanisqatsi today on DVD since I had heard a bit about it (it's the first in a trilogy which began in 1983 and ended in 2002: Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi are the other two). If you like Baraka, you'll probably enjoy the qatsi trilogy (I haven't seen the other two yet). Since there isn't any plot or narration, it's hard to explain what the movie is "about", and that's a good thing. There's a lot of room for personal interpretation. The interview with director Godfrey Reggio on the DVD provides some insightful commentary. One thing that struck me was his quote -- similar to Socrates' quote, "The unexamined life is not worth living" -- which, paraphrased, was "the unquestioned life is nothing more than a religious state." The unquestioned part which he referred to is the "technological foreground" -- the technology that runs our lives but is taken for granted. In other words, have we become a culture that worships technology? Are we toiling away like worker bees, interacting with each other but isolated at the same time? Have we become slaves to the machines we worship? I think the director's answer is yes, but he doesn't have to come right out and say it. One of the more blatant metaphors in the film is a scene of a hot dog factory with thousands of hot dogs streaming down little channels in some machine. Two inspectors diligently throw out some of the wieners and maintain the efficient flow of mass produced meat byproducts. Cut to the next scene where time lapse photography shows thousands of people rushing up escalators, off to somewhere important, no doubt. But the power of the film lies in the questions you ask yourself: "Why is the smoke surrounding that dump truck? What are all these empty apartment buildings? What does it all mean?" And there are no distractions to prevent you from asking those questions. There are no car chases (though there's a lot of time lapse photography of traffic) or romantic interludes to stray away from the central issue, whatever it is. Nearly every frame in the film, taken individually, would be a stunning photograph. The dedication that went in to its production is breathtaking.

One critic called Koyaanisqatsi "one of the greatest films ever made", and even though I'm not a fan of "best ever" lists, I wouldn't object to his claim. Concerning fundamental questions about man's relationship to nature and technology, Koyaanisqatsi is about as good as any movie is going to approach. Then, considering there isn't any plot or dialog, the effort is even more impressive.