Koyaanisqatsi and Its Complex Legacy

“Koyaanisqatsi, intentionally or not, is one of the greatest texts of neoliberalism in the last half century”. That is the controversial statement Kyle Kallgren makes toward the end of this video essay. Controversial because Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 feast of fast-motion is more often interpreted as a critique of capitalist society. That is also how Reggio himself positioned it. But by the time Kallgren posits his alternative reading, you will have come to understand his reasons for doing so.


This intelligent (and irreverently funny) video essay embeds Koyaanisqatsi within a wide audiovisual history timeline. It traces the precursors of this 1980s touchstone, as well as the artists and corporations that followed its example afterwards – from the city symphonies of the 1920s to contemporary stock footage libraries. This amounts to a demystification of Koyaanisqatsi, as Kallgren shows that neither was the movie very original at the time of its release, nor did it bring along the change that it called for in its title card. (Even worse, its imagery was coopted by the very forces and institutions Reggio set out to criticize). The “complex legacy” of the movie is explained convincingly by making cross-references to anything and anyone from Vertov to Foucault, from Madonna to Margaret Thatcher.