Once Within a Time, Godfrey Reggio

Godfrey Reggio’s Beautifully Bewildering ‘Once Within a Time’

Once Within a Time‘s beautifully bewildering carnival of pop surrealist imagery will haunt you long after its 51-minute concludes.

Once Within a Time
Godfrey Reggio
13 October 2023 (US)

Godfrey Reggio, the influential director who redefined the video essay in the ’80s with Koyaanisqatsi, an artful, moving meditation on our increasingly multicultural and technological world, has released a new film. Fans of Koyaanisqatsi are likely to be charmed by 2023’s Once Within a Time, as it shares and explores many of the same themes and techniques. It, too, features a stellar score from Philip Glass. Where Koyaanisqatsi is grand and vaguely melancholic, Once Within a Time is lighthearted and playful, which is ironic given its grim and urgent tone and message.

Once Within a Time opens with a Gaia-like figure – played by Sussan Deyhim, who also provides some of the film’s music – doing what looks like traditional Indian dance in a theater, where a red curtain rises to reveal a playground like something out of a Maxfield Parrish painting. A glistening red apple falls, tempting a boy to take a bite. He is accosted with images of papercut trees blowing away in an atomic wind, with distant galaxies and an enormous hourglass counting down to doomsday in the desert. He and other onlooking children gape, struggling to understand. The two protagonists, a boy and a girl, are hooded with a mesh cage about their heads. Once one eats from the apple, it’s impossible to see the world as one did before.

From here, Once Within a Time follows its “Adam and Eve” through a series of technological metaphors of our current age. After the discovery of technology in the playground, it continues to evolve, settling on something similar to the social media of the first quarter of the 21st century. This segment is particularly poignant, as it also wordlessly illustrates the divisiveness of our current age. The boy, now a young man, is infatuated with the new, shiny thing, chasing “likes” as he greedily scrolls through a holographic feed.

The young woman isn’t so sure and is clearly concerned about some of its effects on her companion. This segment also delivers the next anthropomorphic figure, a larger-than-life demagogue who speaks this shiny new language fluently. It’s nearly impossible not to see the emergence of populist world leaders like Donald Trump in the speaker’s gleaming white grin.

Writing on RogerEbert.com in October 2023, critic Sheila O’Malley designates the demagogue as “an opera maestro declaim(ing) his incomprehensible song to the masses,” although she dubs him “a demi-god dictator, gesturing and bending the masses to his will.” Perhaps she is trying to avoid getting too political. She notes, “Reggio’s vision has three central figures, symbolic and archetypal, but with shifting meanings.” 

However, these shifting meanings are what make Once Within a Time work. Rather than hectoring, haranguing, bludgeoning, and berating its audience, it speaks in a mythic dream language of rich, evocative symbols. It tells a story, but Reggio leaves space for viewers to come to their own conclusions. O’Malley reads the story as a retelling of the Garden of Eden, for example, which is understandable, given the prevalence of knowledge-bestowing apples. However, Once Within a Time could be interpreted as a story about the generation that came of age in the era of networked technology, going from the innocence of analog playgrounds to the world-weary experience of seeing and knowing too much. 

Once Within a Time is more of a daydream or an art exhibition than a narrative film, which also means it’s breathtakingly gorgeous to look at, even if you’re unsure what the director is trying to say. That’s not to say it’s without its faults, though, although you might more fairly accredit the decisions to features of the genre. By its very nature, a film with zero dialogue and very little in the way of a discernible linear plot will have a niche audience.

Other decisions are worth questioning, however. Some of Once Within a Time’s soundtrack can be a bit too twee for its own good. It’s like outtakes from a Spike Jonze joint from the mid-2000s, making it seem dated in an unappealing way. It negates the beauty, earnestness, and genuine emotion of an otherwise beautiful film.

Once Within a Time is a fable for modern times, a fairy tale spun with a fever dream of wires, circuit boards, demagogues, apples, and apes sporting virtual reality headsets. It’s surreal, beautiful, frightening, funny, confusing and, above all, affecting. Once Within a Time‘s carnival of pop surrealist imagery will haunt you long after its 51-minute concludes.

RATING 8 / 10