Glacial in pace. But glaciers are freaking beautiful.
In 1982, Godfrey Reggio altered the cinematic landscape with Koyaanisqatsi, an immaculate, haunting film composed of documentary footage of life on earth that pondered the fraught relationship between man, modernity, and nature. This film, along with the other two documentaries in Reggio’s hypnotic “Qatsi” trilogy, 1988’s Powaqqatsi and 2002’s Naqoyqatsi, captures the majesty and complexities of earth and its inhabitants like no other films have before or since.
With Visitors, Reggio drops the “Qatsi” tag, though the spirit and form of the film are very much in line with his trio of masterpieces: he’s still making statements about man and nature, except now with his lens more fixated on the human side of the equation. Unlike its propulsive, montage-y predecessors, Visitors is segmented, crawling in pace, sobering, and cold to the touch. He shows us sleek black and white images of ominous pieces of architecture and ethereal locales, but most of the 74 minutes-long shots that make up the film are of human faces set against abyssal black backgrounds, scrolling across the screen in super slo-mo to capture every detail, every wrinkle, every morsel of emotion. This is a gorgeous film (especially if you watch it in 4k projection, as it’s being presented in theaters at the request of Reggio and “presenter” Steven Soderbergh), but it’s also a trying one.
Composer Phillip Glass, a long time collaborator of Reggio’s, enriches the imagery with his signature hypnotic, swirling orchestral swells that seem in a constant crescendo. The evocative score helps to placate the restlessness of those whose patience for the film’s deliberate pace begins to run on empty, but even then it may not be enough. Visitors, like Qatsi trilogy, is far, far removed from the conventional moviegoing experience, and has no intentions of stimulating the same pleasure centers other movies bombard so aggressively. This is the slowest moving film you’re going to see in a long, long time. Maybe ever. But there’s purpose to the plod, as it takes you (if you’ll let it) to a mental and spiritual place unreachable by conventional cinematic means.
Much like an art installation at a modern museum, the film targets our deepest of emotions, the ones inarticulable and often inaccessible without letting ourselves fall into a state of meditation or hypnosis. These feelings can be fleeting, like a whiff of food that reminds you of your childhood, but their effect is immense. When you see the human faces creep across the screen, some smiling mischievously, some screaming in agony, perhaps they’ll remind you of a time in your life when you felt sad, or lost, or elated. When you see the spectacular first shot of the film, of a gorilla with jet black hair set against a jet black background, staring you right in the eyes, perhaps you’ll see mother earth, or think about animal cruelty. Maybe you’ll quiver in fear. Or perhaps you’ll see an all-knowing creature existing on a plane higher than ours, observing our petty lives, as we did in Au Hasard Balthazar. This is interpretive cinema at its most democratic and challenging.
The shot that’s lingered longest in the back of my mind is an early one, in which the camera is set at the foot of a towering skyscraper, craned up at an extreme angle to capture the entirety of the colossal building. The skies above rush by with a time-lapse flicker, reflecting off of the polished building. The image leaves me lonely and detached, and it haunts me as I type.
We could be the “visitors” Reggio insinuates, ravaging a planet that will inevitably devour us. Or maybe the visitors are aliens, observing the strange behaviors of the human race. Either way, Visitors is a beautiful picture, but it’s also an alienating one. I can’t say I was enamored for the entire 87 minutes (some images, like several close-ups of human hands, didn’t connect whatsoever) but it’s an experience that has unquestionably expanded my cinematic taste, which is invaluable. The dynamic movement and vitality of the Qatsi trilogy make those films more approachable; Visitors is a tough sit due to its glacial pace. But you know what? Glaciers are freaking beautiful.