Once Within a Time

Ten years after his last film, “Koyaanisqatsi” writer/director Godfrey Reggio  (with co-director Jon Kane) returns with a 52 minute Bardic fairy tale where children face the apocalypse head on “Once Within a Time.”

Laura's Review: A-

Mother Earth (vocalist Sussan Deyhim), cast in a golden glow, melodically yodels in a forest, her head crowned with antler-like tree branches.  Children play on a carousel and jungle gym set within cottony trees bearing apples, one of which falls to the ground and grows human sized, the man within its core demonstrating a compartment to two adults, their heads encased in lacework orbs.  They open the door to his midsection, light pouring out revealing a man (John Flax) with small eyes and rodent-like teeth, his head encased in dentures.  We are on a surreal, continually morphing journey, one which resembles a German expressionistic, Orwellian ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as imagined by David Lynch and filmed by Guy Maddin, Philip Glass’s score adding a futuristic element.

The mime-like ‘denture head’ takes center stage, intent on entertaining, but he is distracted by what appear to be explosions in the distance.  Skyscrapers rise and turn into iPhones, Smiley Face icons dropping out onto the ground in the form of heavy bottomed dancing figures with eerily vacant white soft sculpture faces.  The children will be surrounded by wooden artist mannequins, the largest of which bears the face of Greta Thunberg.  An iceberg appears, followed by a countdown, then flames.

We see animals fleeing, followed by an accusatory looking gorilla superimposed over an hourglass.  Perhaps the film’s most delightful yet disturbing image is that of a chimp wearing a headset, absorbed in its virtual reality jungle as it ziplines down an electrical wire.  ‘Dies Irae’ fills the soundtrack as a giant robot walks a barren earth, attacked by flying saucers.  Reggio always returns to the children, full framed portraits of them initially looking happy before growing more concerned.  At one point, red balloons rain down, delighting them, a possible distraction by a ranting demigod (Brian Belott).   Mother Earth calls the children, who delight in performing for the camera.  A smiling Mike Tyson appears in a wizard’s robes, perhaps our savior?

“Once Within a Time” is a head trip of an experience, but while its messages about climate change, technology and rising authoritarianism are dire, Reggio finds a way to embrace hope.  ‘Which age is this?  The sunset or the dawn?’

Robin's Review: B+

Oscilloscope Labs released "Once Within a Time" in select theaters on 10/13/23, expanding in subsequent weeks.