Review: “Visitors”

A scene from Godfrey Reggio's "Visitors," here reviewed by film critic Danny Baldwin.It should go without saying by now that when you enter a film by Godfrey Reggio, you should not expect any semblance of a traditional narrative. Like his noted “Qatsi” trilogy—that’s 1982’s “Koyaanisqatsi,” 1988’s “Powaqqatsi,” and 2002’s “Naquoyqatsi”—Reggio’s latest effort, “Visitors,” is but a collection of 74 shots manipulated by various effects, set to an always-present score by Philip Glass.

While the images of “Visitors”—black-and-white, slow-motion renderings mostly of people’s faces, but also locations (the moon, an abandoned warehouse) and other items of interest (a gorilla from the Bronx Zoo)—are always aesthetically pleasing, their purpose isn’t immediately clear. There’s no obvious connective subject, as the “Qatsi” trilogy found in the environment and technology.

But if Reggio’s intent doesn’t become obvious to you as “Visitors” progresses, he makes it explicitly known in the final shot — a jaw-dropper, the literal contents of which I wouldn’t dare spoil here. I will, however, discuss what the shot signifies: that the film stands as Reggio’s means of retraining the audience to properly look at the cinematic image. This is a skill we’ve lost touch with as movies progressively privilege visual tricks—many of which, ironically, were pioneered in more legitimate ways in “Koyaanisqatsi”—over their actual subjects.

By presenting us with simple compositions in the most stripped-down conditions possible (there is no color or rapid movement to distract us), Reggio forces us to truly see what’s onscreen, to examine it, to entertain it, to feel it. In the age of so-called “event cinema,” the former monk-in-training remains committed to the opposite, what I would call “experience cinema.” Reggio doesn’t privilege any one image over another, with the exception of the repeating bookends, signifying that “Visitors” is a film more about the act of looking than what we’re looking at.

In this sense, I’ve framed “Visitors” as being quite high-stakes: We’ve lost our ability to look at film properly—to be a functional part of the cinematic apparatus—and we have just 74 shots to get said ability back, and in-turn re-realize the ontological possibilities of the medium. Perhaps the situation isn’t so dire. But at the very least, “Visitors” functions as a reminder that we must always be looking at cinema — at the way the light hits each part of the frame, at the way the figures are positioned, at the way objects move in space and time.

Because if we don’t truly look at cinema—or rather, look with the appropriate curiosity and skill—then we will fail to see ourselves in it.