The first of Visitors’ 74 images is that of a gorilla, framed in a pleasing, square, head-and-shoulders, detail-saturated close-up, exuding calm intelligence, seemingly aware of the camera. The illusion, of course, is that he’s looking at us from up there on the big screen. We might project upon his gaze quiet accusation or resigned dismay. That’s the nice thing about ambiguity: it allows varied readings to accrue. But this arresting image doesn’t last quite long enough to cause genuine discomfort. And as Visitors goes along, despite its wordlessness, that ambiguity dissolves into an air of general sanctimony.
Which was pretty much the drill with Godfrey Reggio’s previous films, collectively referred to as The Qatsi Trilogy, the first and best-known being Koyaanisqatsi (1982), whose rapturous Philip Glass score and fecund images of American wilderness and urban alienation left a powerful impression—powerful enough to mitigate the annoyingness of the film’s didactic faux-profundities. While keeping Glass in the mix, Visitors is a departure for the Qatsi films is that it is black and white and prominently features people, not in blurred masses but rather in ultra-crisp close-up. It would be a mistake to take this for actual interest in individuals or any kind of rigorous exercise in empathy. After the film’s truly hypnotic first, and by far best, third or so, in which the use of close-ups of sundry, nearly still faces, framed in the same manner as the gorilla (none of them examined long or thoroughly enough to gain, for example, the vulnerability or behavioural revelations of Warhol’s screen-tests or Bill Viola’s video works), we come to realize that Reggio isn’t actually invested in his subjects as individuals so much as sculptural objects to manipulate in a numbingly systematic schema.
A telling sequence from late in Visitors: we see a dead swamp, then a cemetery, then vast amounts of trash cascading over a landfill. The film stops short of melting icecaps. If they weren’t so expensively assembled, such sequences would seem little different from a symbol-laden first-year art school video project. With its frequent resorting to slow-motion and its tastefully even lighting, the film is ham-fisted in the most sombre way. Another key sequence finds hands, isolated, like much here, in a void, pantomiming the manipulation of a mouse or touch-screen. The absence of an actual mouse or touch-screen is the thudding point, an invisible finger wagging at us consumer-puppets for our soul-killing dependence on time-wasting devices. (It occurs to me that there are several similarities between Visitors and Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): the reminder of our simian heritage, the lack of fleshed-out characters, the deliberate alienation, the meditation on tools and general warnings about ceding control to machines. But that film was vastly more fascinated with what it critiqued, it had story, and was so much less preachy.) You might argue that this sequence could just as easily be interpreted as a celebration of technology—the same technology used to make this very film—but that would require one to detect in most of Visitors a drive to celebrate anything. This is a resolutely pooh-pooh movie, and truth be told, I probably share most all of Reggio's politics and anxieties. But pooh-pooh with panache. Pooh-pooh with complexity. Show us something we don’t know.