The inky imagery over the closing credits of Visitors confirms what some viewers may have already suspected – that Godfrey Reggio’s beautifully lensed, black-and-white, non-narrative spectacle is the cinematic equivalent of a Rorschach blot. This is not necessarily a criticism. At a time when most non-fiction films endeavour to tell their audiences exactly how to think about an issue or event, a movie that places an onus of interpretation on the viewer is a rare thing indeed. But as it glides along from one pretty picture to the next, Visitors starts to feel less like a singular artistic gesture than a compendium of quasi-experimental film clichés.
These include – but are not limited to – time-lapsed footage of rolling clouds and placid waters; slow-motion shots of birds in flight; pans across artfully degraded urban environments (in this case a spookily depopulated amusement park); glimpses of garbage being fed through a compactor; and a number of camera set-ups seemingly copped from Stanley Kubrick, including a shot of Earth as seen from the surface of the moon. But where the director of 2001: A Space Odyssey had to fake his galactic vistas, Reggio – whose trilogy of Qatsi films rank among the most commercially successful avant-garde productions of all time – possesses the resources and the reputation to actually film in outer space (take that, Gravity!). And even if the film’s other shooting locations in New York, New Jersey and Louisiana are comparatively less exotic, Reggio and his collaborators strive to imbue them with a similarly stark, otherworldly beauty.
The main attractions in Visitors are not places, however, but faces. Following an admittedly startling overture in which the camera patiently studies the forbidding, massive visage of a silverback gorilla – Kubrick’s ape-man and monolith rolled into one – the film settles into a groove of precisely framed close-ups of unidentified people, who range across a broad spectrum of ages and ethnicities. If I read the film correctly, Reggio means to evoke parallel senses of mystery and recognition in these head-on encounters, but by coaching his performers to mostly appear po-faced, he unwittingly generates a third response: skepticism. There’s something suspicious about this lineup of ciphers, as if Reggio had drawn a bunch of blanks and then tried to pass the empty sketches off as portraiture.
If Visitors’s visuals are accidentally redundant, the score by Philip Glass is quite consciously repetitious, and no less gorgeous for that. But where Glass’s score for Koyaanisqatsi gave that film a sense of breakneck momentum, the circular orchestrations in Visitors confirm its status as a movie trapped inside its own narrow concept. Like 2012’s similarly deluxe travelogue Samsara (directed by Reggio’s former DP Ron Fricke), Visitors is content to score broad points off modern life – a scene of fingers moving over an invisible tracking pad facilely paints us as slaves to technology – instead of seeking out genuinely surprising points of view. The skill that goes into making a film like this should not be discounted, but it’s hard to celebrate something that seems so serenely pleased with its own shimmering perfection.