Caught in a trance, or are they mirrors?
What are they thinking, the multitude of near motionless faces in director Godfrey Reggio’s entrancing fourth film Visitors? They stare so deeply and intently at you, or at least it feels like you. Soon you realize they’re mimicking you. They’re staring at a screen with the same droopy, confused look you are.
This slow-motion, impressionistic collection of shots feels at least more favorable towards the human race than Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi trilogy, which looked at nature, technology, and the population’s debilitating effects above beautifully ominous Phillip Glass scores, which Reggio uses again this time. Those movies moved at least, often using time lapse to make the mundane feel eerily robotic. But motion is used sparingly here, with 74 shots stretched over eighty minutes.
Certainly this pace and intense artistic focus will not cater to everyone. The film opens and closes with a moving portrait of a Gorilla (Triska from the Bronx Zoo), which sets the tone for Reggio’s facial analysis. Then he evokes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, slowly tilting the camera over the moon’s surface. He will come back to these shots sporadically later, as if playing a memory game.
Then come the human close-ups. They’re a diverse bunch and Reggio pans laterally as if they’ve lined up in some darkened prison cell. It’s transfixing until it becomes tiring. You wait mostly for the unexpected muscle movements, like a heavy blink, or a pursed lip. At one point, a man appears in agony, but you can’t tell if he’s shouting or simply yawning. These shots are complemented with what seems to be a formal critique. He splices the intense blank stares with stills of an anonymous brick building, an abandoned warehouse, or an empty boardwalk amusement ride.
What does it all mean? The synopsis suggests that Visitors indicts our trance-like relationship with technology. The film spends several minutes displaying someone’s thumbs, ostensibly typing on a smartphone. They look like they’re dancing on a stage. Later a collection of people stand hunched over exasperated and enthusiastically cheering for their team during some sort of sporting event, while one woman cradles her head in defeat.
Staring into these faces, until they are left for some exquisite shots of nature, becomes an uncomfortable experience. But I believe that’s the intended response. It’s rare to stare intently into someone’s eyes for so long, to scrutinize every superficial detail. What we’re seeing might be the perspective of our laptop’s camera if it were always turned on. Reggio evinces that a mostly blank expression of captivation might be this generation’s time capsule.
And what about the title, Visitors, after all? “Prisoners” feels more apt. When aliens come to earth, is this their welcome, millions huddled inside stationary buildings, trapped in their computers? There’s a small twist near the end that may help you solve the puzzle. Reggio scatters the pieces and hopes, if you’ve managed to sit through it all, that some contemplation provides a small, outlined epiphany.