It all started in the Garden of Eden, when curious Eve ate the apple, and “Once Within a Time” starts there, too, in the gentle framing device that opens it. An audience sits in a darkened theatre, a red velvet curtain rises, and the “show”—i.e., human life on the spinning planet—begins. Adam and Eve, holding hands, wander underneath a white cotton-ball tree with red hanging apples. Around them, children play and cavort. The same six or seven children are used throughout: we get to know their faces and their expressions. Behind them, a grand visual drama unfolds, made up of stop-motion animation figures, real humans, found footage, and eerie created images: solar systems, a giant hourglass in the desert, black and white newsreel footage of bomb blasts, spindly trees bending backward. The children look on with wonder, humor, interest, and sometimes concern. They are trying to understand. The apple is a portal to another world, another time. The apple is also directly linked to another 20th-century apple, the Mac apple. The garden path Adam and Eve walk down is made up of iPhone cobble stones. The meaning is obvious.
Technology is a blessing and a curse, yes, but more than that, it’s inevitable. It can’t be stopped. Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley wrote one of the most prescient books of all time, her imagination stretching forward 200 years, its warning message still and always relevant. The obsessed maniac Frankenstein doesn’t know when to stop with his experiment. He has to see it through, even if it destroys his mind, his life, and the world as we know it. Mary Shelley saw it all. “Once Within a Time” has almost as bleak an outlook.
Reggio’s celebrated “Koyaanisqatsi,” the first of the Qatsi Trilogy, features a similar cascade of images placed in fluid shifting juxtaposition: power plants and rain forests, rush-hour highways and crashing ocean, pollution and clouds, modernity and its ruins. The images are often beautiful, but the overall effect is anxiety-provoking, sometimes even despairing. What have we done to our beautiful world? Music holds it all together. Philip Glass composed the main score, with additional music by Iranian composer Sussan Deyhim (who also plays a “muse” type character, half-woman, half-tree).