The plotless experimental spectaculars that follow 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi—both those made by Godfrey Reggio (Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi) and by its heroic cinematographer Ron Fricke (Baraka)—pale in comparison to their forefather, in part because they lack its simple, catchy thrust. Much as they tried (and you could see the sweat), none of these films could top Koyaansquatsi and its fashionable damnation—or, if you look at it funny, celebration—of man’s power and destruction of the planet, tricked out with then-novel time lapse photography and a Philip Glass score, also novel at the time. The neat thing about the new Samsara—apart from that it’s the other 70mm eyesore (after The Master) you probably won’t see projected on 70mm—is that it doesn’t try to be Koyaanisqatsi. That, and that it’s very close to being its own, almost-as-thrilling beast.
What it is, however, is hard to lock down. The enigmatic title this time means, roughly, “the eternal cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth,” but there’s no clear “story,” nor a clear throughline. It proceeds through semi-related passages: Panoramic vistas give way to shots of temples and Jordan’s Al Khazneh, cases where ancient cultures worked with nature without destroying it. These lead to the modern world: scarily lifelike androids, video games, office life. Then Samsara freely jumps around between cultures, nature and technology, etc. There’s commentary, as in a cut from a ravaged American city (New Orleans, probably, though locations are never identified) to an ornate palace, plus the thousandth tut-tutting trip to a slaughterhouse. But typically, there’s nothing in the organization forcing us to think one way or the other. The best way to read it, as the critic Matt Zoller Seitz has suggested, is to give in and let your mind wander. You can make associations if you want, and some of them will be surprising.
Samsara is less a Rorshach test than akin to a lazy museum trip, with Fricke the eccentric designer. Still, some of the visuals—absurdly crisp, thanks to the super-sized stock—can be banal and screensaver-friendly, while no single passage ever tops even one of the second-tier stretches of Koyaanisqatsi. And yet, I’m still likely underrating it.