The film consists primarily of slow motion and time-lapse photography of cities and many natural landscapes across the United States. The visual tone poem contains neither dialogue nor a vocalized narration: its tone is set by the juxtaposition of images and music. In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi means 'crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living', and the film implies that modern humanity is living in such a way.
The film is the first in the Qatsi trilogy of films: it is followed by Powaqqatsi (1988) and Naqoyqatsi (2002). The trilogy depicts different aspects of the relationship between humans, nature, and technology. Koyaanisqatsi is the best known of the trilogy and is considered a cult film. However, due to copyright issues, the film was out of print for most of the 1990s.
"Koyaanisqatsi" is chanted at the beginning and end of the film in a dark, sepulchral basso profundo by singer Albert de Ruiter over the score by Philip Glass. Three Hopi prophecies are sung by a choral ensemble over the film's final few minutes and are translated just prior to the end credits:
"If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster."
"Near the day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky."
"A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans."
The film took about six years to make. Three years were spent shooting the film. Glass and Reggio spent an additional three years in a state of collaboration, with Glass composing score to fit the film and Reggio re-cutting the footage to fit the score.