Motion-picture poetry that explores life

At a time when commercialism has squeezed the life out of whatever idealism American moviemaking ever had, Godfrey Reggio's career shines like a lonely beacon.

In the early 1980s, he started a trilogy that would break every mainstream rule – no stories, no characters, no dialogue – but would carry messages about contemporary life that he felt moviegoers needed to hear.

Reggio has pursued this project with persistence, and with the release of "Naqoyqatsi" his vision is complete.

The new picture isn't the strongest of the three – the first, "Koyaanisqatsi," still holds that honor – but its best moments offer a sense of motion-picture poetry that will lift receptive viewers out of their seats.

All three parts of the "qatsi" trilogy are free-association documentaries exploring the idea that humanity has fallen out of equilibrium with the natural world, and needs to realign its psychological and spiritual priorities if it is to survive and prosper.

"Koyaanisqatsi" tackles this most directly, taking its title from a Hopi Indian word meaning "life out of balance," and filling its length with images of technology and "progress" running amok. The less compelling "Powaqqatsi," translated as "life in transformation," explores the effects of materialism and globalization on people in poor regions of the Earth.

"Naqoyqatsi," focusing on "life as war," has the same basic form as the 1983 and 1988 installments.

True to Reggio's original concept, his work as director of the film is equaled by contributions of visual designer Jon Kane and composer Philip Glass, who has written full-length scores for all three "qatsi" films.

The biggest difference between "Naqoyqatsi" and its predecessors is its aggressive use of computer-driven special effects, which give portions of the movie a resplendent visual punch.

Ironically, these effects are a liability as well as an asset, since they encourage Reggio's tendency to present the problems he's warning us about – the dehumanizing impact of high technology and cold-hearted commerce – through images better at seducing our eyes than awakening our thoughts.

Defending the unabashed beauty of his films, Reggio says their ravishing sights and sounds help to spread his messages by drawing more viewers than a darker treatment would attract.

This is questionable, since the same cinematic beauty that lures moviegoers tends to dilute his cautionary ideas. But few avant-garde films have been seen by as many people as the earlier "qatsi" installments, and their audience will grow larger now that "Naqoyqatsi" is in theaters and previous chapters are on video. Adventurous viewers will be watching and debating them for years to come.

• Rated PG; contains adult themes.

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