The first image in the film is of a Fremont Indian pictogram located in The Great Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon, part of Canyonlands National Park, Utah. The section shown depicts several tall darkly-shadowed figures standing near a taller figure adorned with a crown. The next image is a close-up of the Saturn V rocket from the Apollo 12 mission during lift off. The film fades into a shot of a desolate desert landscape. The large skylight arch depicted a few scenes later is a formation called Paul Bunyan's Potty in the Needles District of Canyonlands. From there, it progresses to footage of various natural environmental phenomena such as waves and cloud formations ("Organic").
The film's introduction to human involvement in the environment is subtle: a low aerial shot of choppy water cuts to a similar shot of rows of cultivated flowers. After aerial views of monumental rock formations partly drowned by the backed up waters of Lake Powell, we see a large mining truck causing billows of black dust in the chapter titled "Resource". This is followed by shots of power lines in the desert. Man's continued involvement in the environment is depicted through images of mining operations, overhead shots of power plants, Glen Canyon Dam (not Hoover Dam as the Glen Canyon Bridge is visible) and stock footage of atomic bomb detonations in the Nevada desert.
Right after the atomic bomb detonations, the sequence entitled "Vessels" begins with a shot of sunbathers on a beach, then pans to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, showing how oblivious the sunbathers are to being so close to the same power as the atomic bombs. "Vessels" contains the film's longest single take: a three minute and thirty-two second long shot of two United Airlines commercial passenger Boeing 747s taxiing on a runway. "Vessels" also contains shots of traffic patterns during rush hour on a Los Angeles freeway and a shot of a large parking lot. This is followed with stock footage of Soviet tanks lined up in rows and a B-1 Lancer military aircraft.
The juxtaposition of humans and nature is seen again in the chapter "Cloudscape". The time-lapse photography of shadows of clouds are seen moving across the skyscrapers in New York City. The sequence "Pruit-Igoe" contains shots of various housing projects in disrepair, and includes footage of the decay and demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. The housing project was known for its modernist design, but fell into immediate disrepair. The sequence ends with stock footage of the destruction of large buildings. A sequence known as "Slow People" begins with a time-lapse shot of a crowd of people who appear to be waiting in a line. This is followed by shots of people walking along the streets of New York City shot with slow motion photography.
"The Grid" is the film's longest sequence, roughly 22 minutes in length. The cinematic theme of this sequence is the speed of modern life. The sequence begins with shots of buildings and a shot of a sunset reflected in the glass of a skyscraper. The sequence is characterized by its use of time lapse photography of the activity of modern life, taking events typically shot at normal speed and accelerating them. The events captured in this sequence involve people interacting with modern technology. The first shots are traffic patterns as seen from skyscrapers at night. This is followed by the film's iconic shot of the moon passing behind a skyscraper. The next shots are closer shots of cars on highway. The sun rises over the city and we see shots of people hurrying to work. The film shows at regular speed the operation of machines packaging Oscar Mayer bologna. People are shown sorting mail, sewing jeans, manufacturing televisions and doing other jobs with the use of modern technology. A shot of hot dogs being sent down rows of conveyers is followed by a shot of people moving up escalators. The frenetic speed and pace of the cuts and background music do not slow as shots of modern leisure are shown. People eat, play, shop and work at the same speed. The sequence begins to come full circle as the manufacturing of automobiles in an assembly line factory is shown.
More shots of highway traffic are shown, this time in daylight. The film shows the movement of cars, shopping carts, Twinkies, and televisions on an assembly line, and elevators moving from first person perspective. These shots include cars along the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco (later demolished due to damage from the 1989 earthquake), and people on escalators in New York's Grand Central Terminal and the PATH station below the World Trade Center. The film then shows clips from various television shows being channel surfed in fast motion. Clips include a car crash, newscasts moving so fast that the anchors' faces are blurred (if you pause in this part you can see a very young Lou Dobbs reporting on the middle east) football games, and flashes of television advertisements. The film then shows a man and two different couples reacting to being filmed on the street in slow motion photography. Some of the pedestrians appear indifferent to being filmed, others appear irritated, and one man looks confused about being filmed. The sequence then shows cars moving much faster than they were moving before. Both the sequence and the music end without resolution, either cinematic or musical.
"Microchips" juxtaposes pictures of microchips and satellite photography of metropolitan cities, making an obvious comparison between their layouts. "Prophecies" shows various shots of people from all walks of modern life, from beggars to debutantes. A scene of firefighters moving along a smoky street was shot during the aftermath of the riots after the New York City blackout of 1977. "Ending" shows stock footage of a modified and unpiloted Atlas rocket from the Mercury program from the early 1960s. The rocket blows up shortly after lift off (many viewers mistakenly assume it to be the space shuttle Challenger, the destruction of which occurred three years after the movie's release). The footage follows the flaming rocket engine as it plummets to earth. The film comes full circle with a shot of a different portion of The Great Gallery pictograph. It is similar to the first shot, but with no darkly shadowed figures.If you like the film, buy the DVD. Visit the official site here.
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