Director Godfrey Reggio wraps up a metaphysical cinematic trilogy with "Naqoyqatsi," the third installment of a series that began in 1983 with "Koyaanisqatsi." Back then, Reggio's film montage -- which owed much to experimental filmmaker Bruce Conner and his peers -- seemed like a major breakthrough, attracting a surprisingly large audience to experience a series of images of modern life set to a hypnotic score by Philip Glass.
Twenty years later, the project is beginning to wear thin, not only because so much of what Reggio did in 1983 has wormed its way into advertising, music videos and other artifacts of American pop culture, but because reality is so quickly outstripping the director's points. "Naqoyqatsi" is Hopi for "life as war" ("Koyaanisqatsi" means "life out of balance," and its 1988 follow-up, "Powaqqatsi," means "life in transformation"), but as relevant as the topic is, Reggio's linkage of binary thinking, capitalism, natural selection and mass media with human aggression seems merely pretentious, ponderous and redundant.
Set to another Glass score, this time performed by the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, "Naqoyqatsi" opens with long shots of crumbling architecture, somber black-and-white portraits of urban aspiration and decay. Reggio clearly means for the images to be cautionary, and the next 80 minutes are spent inveighing against the hubris of Western civilization. Using mostly stock footage that has been digitally colored, enhanced and animated, Reggio encourages viewers to ruminate on the connections among Cartesian rationality, genetics, technology, nationalism, consumerism, celebrity, sports, religion and politics, and how their various impulses lead to aggression and war. He does this by editing together vignettes of familiar images, from a baby floating in space to random numbers dancing across the screen, from wax figures of world leaders and celebrities to wartime murders, bombings and strafings.
The net effect is a numbing one. Rather than inspire reflection and the radical synthesis of ideas, Reggio effectively shuts them down by assaulting viewers with cliched, simplistic visual jargon. You may not need linear narrative to create a great movie, but you do need some original ideas.
Naqoyqatsi (89 minutes, at Cineplex Odeon Inner Circle) is rated PG for violent and disturbing images, and for brief nudity.