Review by Sean Boelman
Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi is one of the most acclaimed experimental films of all time, but unlike many breakout debuts, it did not lead to a prolific career — Reggio instead opting to take a much more patient cadence with his work. The filmmaker’s latest movie, Once Within a Time, coming out a decade after his last effort, is more accessible than one might expect, but very audacious nonetheless.
The film takes the form of a fairy tale, depicting the end of the world leading into the birth of a new one. Like his non-fiction movies, Reggio again is exploring many of the mistakes humanity has made and what must be done to correct them. Structuring a pseudo-narrative as a fable-esque fantasy is honestly a perfect fit for Reggio’s style and message.
In many ways, Once Within a Time is more accessible than your average experimental film. Sure, there’s no dialogue, and the barrage of trippy visuals the audience is subjected to is incredibly dense. However, there is also a clear sense of humor to Reggio’s latest work. Some of the imagery Reggio creates — including one homage to “The Creation of Adam” — and it ends with a Simpsons joke. Reggio is definitively operating on a different level here than with his Qatsi trilogy.
The cinematography in the movie creates a very old-school aesthetic, almost as if you are watching an early silent film, but with themes that are distinctly modern-day. Although one could argue it is gimmicky — and to an extent, it seems meant to be, playing into our understanding of the gimmick to create its effect.
Arguably even more interesting than the cinematography, though, are the other aspects of the visual design. Reggio creates the surreal world of the movie through production design and costuming in conjunction with digital effects. It’s the perfect mix of minimalism and expansiveness to capture the atmosphere that Reggio clearly intends.
Equally important to Reggio’s contributions, though, is the score by Philip Glass — which does a lot of heavy lifting in immersing the viewer in the dreamscape Reggio creates. Reggio and Glass have been longtime collaborators, and the duo together are absolute magic here, especially when Glass’s whimsical compositions are juxtaposed against Reggio’s imagery in the more futuristic elements.
One thing that stood out while watching Once Within a Time is that the pantomime is becoming a lost art. Many actors in the film give performances that are too exaggerated and over-the-top. Interestingly, the major exception to this is Mike Tyson, whose cameo fits perfectly in place. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise, though, as the physicality of being an athlete might have prepared him for the physicality of a silent performance.
Once Within a Time is undeniably interesting on a formal level, and allows Godfrey Reggio to take his talents to a whole new genre and approach. It’s sometimes a bit too big and on-the-nose, but it’s quite intriguing — and likely will be even to audiences who aren’t as comfortable with experimental cinema.
Once Within a Time hits theaters on October 13.