The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse footage of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. The visual tone poem contains neither dialogue nor a vocalized narration: its tone is set by the juxtaposition of images and music. Reggio explained the lack of dialogue by stating "it's not for lack of love of the language that these films have no words. It's because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live." In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi means "unbalanced life". The film is the first in the Qatsi trilogy of films: it is followed by Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). The trilogy depicts different aspects of the relationship between humans, nature and technology. Koyaanisqatsi is the best known of the trilogy and is considered a cult film. However, because of copyright issues, the film was out of print for most of the 1990s.
The first image in the film is of the Great Gallery pictograph in Horseshoe Canyon (Utah), in Canyonlands National Park. The section shown depicts several tall, shadowed figures standing near a taller figure adorned with a crown. The next image is a close-up of a Saturn V rocket during its launch (Apollo 11). The film fades into a shot of a desolate desert landscape. From there, it progresses to footage of various natural phenomena such as waves and clouds.
The film's introduction to human involvement in the environment is a low aerial shot of choppy water, cutting to a similar shot of rows of cultivated flowers. After aerial views of monumental rock formations partly drowned by the artificial Lake Powell, we see a large mining truck causing billows of black dust. This is followed by shots of power lines in the desert. Man's continued involvement in the environment is depicted through images of mining operations, oil fields, the Navajo Generating Station, the Glen Canyon Dam, and atomic bomb detonations in a desert. Following the atomic bomb detonations, the next sequence begins with a shot of sunbathers on a beach, then pans to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in the background. Shots of taxiing United Airlines Boeing 747 aircraft and traffic patterns during rush hour are seen on a freeway and a shot of a large parking lot. This is followed with stock footage of Soviet tanks lined up in rows and a military aircraft, and an aircraft carrier.
Time-lapse photography of shadows of clouds are seen moving across the skyscrapers. Shots of various housing projects in disrepair, and includes footage of the decay and demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. The sequence ends with footage of the destruction of large buildings. A time-lapse shot of a crowd of people who appear to be waiting in a line. This is followed by shots of people walking along streets in slow motion.
The next sequence begins with shots of buildings and a shot of a sunset reflected in the glass of a skyscraper. The sequence uses time-lapse photography of the activity of modern life. The events captured in this sequence involve people interacting with modern technology. The first shots are traffic patterns as seen from skyscrapers at night. This is followed by a composite shot of the moon passing behind a skyscraper. The next shots are closer shots of cars on a highway. The sun rises over the city and we see people hurrying to work. The film shows at regular speed the operation of machines packaging food. People are shown sorting mail, sewing jeans, manufacturing televisions and doing other jobs with the use of modern technology. A shot of hot dogs being sent down rows of conveyors is followed by a shot of people moving up escalators. The frenetic speed and pace of the cuts and music do not slow as shots of modern leisure are shown. People eat, play, shop and work at the same speed. The sequence begins to come full circle as the manufacture of cars in an assembly line factory is shown.
More shots of highway traffic are shown, this time in daylight. The film shows the movement of cars, shopping carts, and televisions on an assembly line, and elevators moving from first-person perspective. The film then shows clips from various television shows being channel surfed in fast motion. The film, in slow motion, then shows several people reacting to being candidly filmed on the street. The camera stays on them until the moment when they acknowledge its presence by looking directly at it. The sequence then shows cars moving much faster than they were moving before.
Pictures of microchips and satellite photography of metropolitan cities are shown, comparing the lay of each of them. Various shots of people are seen from all walks of modern life, from beggars to debutantes. The final sequence shows footage of a rocket lifting off, only to end up exploding after a few seconds. Editing suggest that there is only one rocket, while in fact two different events were used: The first batch of footage shows a Saturn V lifting off (Apollo 11), followed by footage of the May 1962 explosion of the first Atlas-Centaur. The camera follows a flaming rocket engine and a white vapor trail or smoke against a blue sky as the debris plummets toward the ground. The film concludes with another shot of desert rock art similar to the image at the beginning. Epilogue shows the translation of the titular Hopi word and of the prophecies sung in the last part of the soundtrack.
In 1972, Godfrey Reggio, of the Institute for Regional Education (IRE), was working on a media campaign in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The campaign involved invasions of privacy and the use of technology to control behavior. Instead of making public service announcements, which Reggio felt "had no visibility," advertising spots were purchased for television, radio, newspapers, and billboards. Over thirty billboards were used for the campaign, and one design featured a close-up of the human eye, which Reggio described as a "horrifying image." To produce the television commercials the IRE-hired cinematographer Ron Fricke, who worked on the project for two years. The television advertisements aired during prime time programming and became so popular that viewers would call the television stations to learn when the next advertisement would be aired. Godfrey described the two-year campaign as "extraordinarily successful," and as a result, Ritalin (methylphenidate) was eliminated as a behavior-modifying drug in many New Mexico school districts. But after the campaign ended, the ACLU eventually withdrew its sponsorship, and the IRE unsuccessfully attempted to raise millions of dollars at a fundraiser in Washington, D.C. The institute only had $40,000 left in their budget, and Reggio was unsure how to use the small amount of funds. Fricke insisted to Reggio that the money could be used to produce a film, which led to the production of Koyaanisqatsi.
Fricke and Reggio chose to shoot unscripted footage and edit it into an hour-long film. Production began in 1975 in St. Louis, Missouri. 16 mm film was used due to budget constraints, despite the preference to shoot with 35 mm film. Footage of the Pruitt–Igoe housing project was shot from a helicopter, and Fricke nearly passed out during filming, having never flown in a helicopter before. Reggio later chose to shoot in Chicago, Washington, and New York City. As there was no formal script, Fricke shot whatever he felt would "look good on film". While filming in New York City, Fricke developed an idea to shoot portraits of people. A grey paper backdrop was displayed in Times Square, and Fricke stood 10 feet (3 m) back with the camera. People walking by started posing for the camera, thinking it was a still camera, and several shots from the setup ended up in the film. Godfrey was not on location in Times Square when Fricke shot the footage and thought the idea of shooting portraits of people was "foolish". Upon viewing the footage, Godfrey decided to devote an entire section of the film to portraits. The footage was processed with a special chemical to enhance the film's shadows and details, as all footage was shot only with existing lighting. The IRE's $40,000 was exhausted after the filming, and almost two cases of film had been used. The unedited footage was screened in Santa Fe, New Mexico, but Fricke said it was "boring as hell" and there were "not that many good shots". Fricke later moved to Los Angeles, and took a job as a waiter, unable to get a job in the film industry. While Fricke was working in Los Angeles, he edited the footage into a twenty-minute reel, but "without regard for message or political content".
The IRE was continuously receiving funding and wanted to continue the project in 1976, using 35 mm film. After quitting his waiting job, Fricke traveled with a camera crew to the Four Corners, which was chosen for filming for its "alien look". Due to the limited budget, Fricke shot with a 16 mm zoom lens onto 35 mm film. To compensate for the lens size, a 2× extender was added, which turned it into a full 35 mm zoom lens, allowing footage to be clearly captured onto 35 mm film. The two-week shoot included aerial footage taken from an airplane using a hand-held camera and ground footage taken using a tripod. The first aerial footage was too "shaky", so additional footage was taken from a camera mounted onto the airplane. Fricke traveled back to New York City in 1977, during which the blackout occurred. Footage of the blackout was filmed in Harlem and the South Bronx, and the film was desaturated to match the appearance of the 16 mm footage.
Reggio and Fricke came across time-lapse footage in "some low-visibility commercial work". They felt such footage was "the language [they] were missing", and collectively decided to implement time-lapse as a major part of the film to create "an experience of acceleration". For the time-lapse footage, Fricke purchased a Mitchell camera, and built a motor with an intervalometer, which was used to precisely move the camera between frames. The system was powered by a gel cell battery that lasted for twelve hours, which enabled Fricke to shoot without the use of a generator. Most time-lapse shots were filmed at a frame rate of 1½ frames per second. Fricke wanted the footage to "look normal" and not contain any "gimmicky" special effects. The time-lapse shot overlooking the freeway in Los Angeles was filmed from the top of a building in through a double exposure, with ten-second delay between frames. The first take was shot throughout the day for twelve hours, then the film was rewound and the same scene was shot at night for twenty minutes.
The scene with the Boeing 747 on the runway was filmed at Los Angeles International Airport, and was the longest continuous shot in the film. Fricke and his focus puller, Robert Hill, filmed at the airport every day for two weeks. To keep the shot of the 747 within the frame, the camera was slowly moved by increasing the voltage to the gear motors.
In addition to footage shot by Fricke, some of the footage of people and traffic in New York City was shot by cinematographer Hilary Harris. During post-production, Reggio was introduced to Harris' Organism (1975), which predominately features time-lapse footage of New York City streets. Reggio was impressed with Harris' work and subsequently hired him to work on Koyaanisqatsi. Footage filmed by cinematographer Louis Schwartzberg was added into the cloud sequence, and additional stock footage was provided by MacGillivray Freeman Films.
While Reggio was working on post-production at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio in 1981, he met film director Francis Ford Coppola through an associate from Zoetrope Studios, Coppola's production company. Prior to shooting The Outsiders (1983) and Rumble Fish (1983), Coppola requested to see Koyaanisqatsi, and Reggio arranged a private screening shortly after its completion. Coppola told Reggio that he was waiting for a film such as Koyaanisqatsi and that it was "important for people to see", so he added his name into the credits and helped present and distribute the film. Coppola also decided to introduce and end the film with footage of pictographs from the Great Gallery at Horseshoe Canyon in Utah, after visiting the site and becoming fascinated by the ancient sandstone murals.
The film's soundtrack by Philip Glass was released in 1983, after the release of the film. Even though the amount of music in the film was almost as long as the film itself, the soundtrack release was only 46 minutes long and featured only selections from the film's pieces. In 1998, Glass rerecorded the album through Nonesuch Records with a length of 73 minutes, 21 seconds. The rerecording of the album featured two additional tracks from the film, as well as extended versions of previous tracks from the original album. The album was released as a Philip Glass album titled Koyaanisqatsi, rather than a soundtrack to the film. The music has become so popular that the Philip Glass Ensemble has toured the world, playing the music for Koyaanisqatsi live in front of the movie screen.
The opening for "The Grid" begins with slow sustained notes on brass instruments. The music builds in speed and dynamics throughout the piece's 21 minutes. When the piece is at its fastest, it is characterized by a synthesizer playing the piece's bass line ostinato.
Glass's music for the film is a highly recognizable example of the minimalist school of composition, which is characterized by heavily repeated figures, simple structures, and a tonal (although not in the traditional common practice sense of the word) harmonic language. Glass was one of the first composers to employ minimalism in film scoring, paving the way for many future composers of that style.
The complete original soundtrack recording was released on CD in 2009 on Glass's own label Orange Mountain Music.
Reggio stated that the Qatsi films are intended to simply create an experience and that "it is up [to] the viewer to take for himself/herself what it is that [the film] means." He also said that "these films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It's been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it's not the effect of, it's that everything exists within [technology]. It's not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe..."
According to Hopi Dictionary: Hopìikwa Lavàytutuveni, the Hopi word koyaanisqatsi (Hopi pronunciation: [kojɑːnisˈkɑtsi]) is defined as "life of moral corruption and turmoil" or "life out of balance". The prefix koyaanis– means "corrupted" or "chaotic", and the word qatsi means "life" or "existence", literally translating koyaanisqatsi as "chaotic life". The film also defines the word as "crazy life", "life in turmoil", "life disintegrating", and "a state of life that calls for another way of living".
In the score by Philip Glass, the word "Koyaanisqatsi" is chanted at the beginning and end of the film in an "otherworldly" dark, sepulchral basso profondo by singer Albert de Ruiter over a solemn, four-bar organ-passacaglia bassline. Three Hopi prophecies sung by a choral ensemble during the latter part of the "Prophecies" movement are translated just prior to the end credits:"If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster."
"Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky."
"A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans."
During the end titles, the film gives Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, David Monongye, Guy Debord, and Leopold Kohr credit for inspiration. Moreover, amongst the consultants to the director are listed such names as Jeffrey Lew, T.A. Price, Belle Carpenter, Cybelle Carpenter, Langdon Winner, and Barbara Pecarich.
Koyaanisqatsi premiered at the Santa Fe Film Festival on April 28, 1982. It was screened later that year at the Telluride Film Festival in August and at the New York Film Festival in September.
Triumph Films offered to distribute the film, but Reggio turned down the offer as he wanted to work with a smaller company so he could be more involved with the release. He chose Island Alive as the distributor, a company newly formed in 1983 by Chris Blackwell of Island Records, and Koyaanisqatsi was the company's first release. Select theaters distributed a pamphlet that defined the title and the Hopi prophecies sung in the film, as well as a copy of the soundtrack from Island Records. The first theatrical run featured four-track Dolby Stereo sound, while later runs featured monaural sound.
The film's initial limited release began in San Francisco at the Castro Theatre on April 27, 1983. The producers spent $6,500 on marketing the initial release, which grossed $46,000 throughout its one-week run, and was the highest-grossing film in the San Francisco Bay Area that week. It was released in Los Angeles a month later where it grossed $300,000 at two theaters within 15 weeks. Additional releases in select cities throughout the United States continued in September 1983, beginning with a release in New York City on September 15. In mid-October, Koyaanisqatsi was released onto 40–50 screens throughout the country.
A 1991 issue of Variety listed Koyaanisqatsi's box office gross at $3.2 million.
The rights to Koyaanisqatsi were passed through various multinational entertainment companies, which eventually prevented a home video release. IRE enforced their legal and contractual rights by creating a federal court lawsuit. IRE distributed a privately issued release of the film on DVD. The release was available to those who made a donation of at least $180 to IRE, and was distributed in a sleeve that was signed by Reggio.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) eventually received the rights to the film, and Koyaanisqatsi was released on DVD by MGM Home Entertainment on September 18, 2002, coinciding with the release of Naqoyqatsi (2002). Both films were available in a two-disc box set. Each DVD includes a documentary with interviews by Reggio and Glass and trailers for the Qatsi trilogy. Unlike the IRE release, which featured the film in the open matte format in which it was filmed, the MGM release was in cropped into a widescreen aspect as it was originally presented in theaters.
On January 13, 2012, a Blu-ray version (screen ratio 16:9) was released in Germany. The Blu-ray was also released in Australia by Umbrella Entertainment on March 22, 2012. In December 2012, Criterion released in the US a remastered Blu-ray and DVD of Koyaanisqatsi, as part of a box set containing the Qatsi Trilogy.
Koyaanisqatsi has a score of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes out of 18 reviews. In 1983, the film was entered into the 33rd Berlin International Film Festival. In 2000, Koyaanisqatsi was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Koyaanisqatsi is followed by the sequels Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi and the shorts Anima Mundi and Evidence. Naqoyqatsi was completed after a lengthy delay caused by funding problems and premiered in the United States on October 18, 2002. The film's cinematographer, Ron Fricke, went on to direct Baraka, a pure cinema movie which is often compared to Koyaanisqatsi.The film inspired the Belgian post-rock band We Stood Like Kings to write a new soundtrack under the title USA 1982, released in 2017 on the German label Kapitän Platte and presented at the cultural venue Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels in October 2017.
The trailer for Grand Theft Auto IV resembles the style of the film, featuring different shots of the fictional Liberty City, with the track "Pruit Igoe" in the background.
In Watchmen, the story of how Dr. Manhattan came to be is accompanied by a montage of the pieces "Prophecies" and "Pruit Igoe". The same tracks were featured in the trailer of the film.
The film inspired the album Music To Films by Dr. Atmo and Oliver Lieb, released on the record label FAX +49-69/450464. The music is completely synchronized to the film.
The film inspired filmmaker Param P. Tomanec to direct experimental documentary Rasa Yatra (2012).
The film's title song was featured in two episodes of the TV series Scrubs. The first time was in "My New God" when the Janitor gave the "evil eye" to J.D. The second time was in "My Chopped Liver" when the Janitor gave the "evil eye" to Carla accompanied by Todd, Laverne and Ted.
The title song appears in Season Six of the CW series Gilmore Girls, in the episode "We've Got Magic to Do". Kirk performs an interpretive dance as the song plays in the background.
The chanted "koyaanisqatsi" lyric from the film's title song was parodied in P. D. Q. Bach's "Prelude to Einstein on the Fritz" (itself a pun on the title of the opera Einstein on the Beach composed by Philip Glass), replaced with the lyric "coy hotsy-totsy".
Madonna's video for "Ray of Light" visually resembles Koyaanisqatsi.
The film's title theme also inspired the soundtrack to the classic 1987 video game Delta, which became one of the best known video game soundtracks by Rob Hubbard.
A 2010 episode of The Simpsons, "Stealing First Base", features a parody Itchy & Scratchy film entitled Koyannis-Scratchy: Death out of Balance.
Possibly, the film's iconic sped-up city imagery was inspired by the title sequence for Jack Garden's 1961 cult classic Something Wild. The title sequence was created by Saul Bass and shows city imagery very reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi.