The aesthetic mysteries of Visitors, a symphony of pristine 4K sequences by director Godfrey Reggio, lie in the answers to “What am I looking at?” and “What am I seeing?” Composed of 74 roughly minute-long shots, underscored by the roiling rhythms of Philip Glass (as were the filmmaker’s 1982 Koyaanisqatsi and two formally similar follow-up features), Reggio’s black-and-white space oddity opens with Kubrickian flair, fading in on the baleful stare of a lowland gorilla, then a flyover of the lunar landscape with an empty sky above its horizon. But soon Visitors seems anchored by an unearthly and unsettling chain of human portraits, each of whose subjects stare into the static camera almost unblinkingly, their features anointed with an alien newness by the clarity of the digital image and size of the frame. Skin appears both plastic and like the dermis of an immortal, infinitely supple race.
The spell of these placid individuals, who gaze as steadily as Marina Abramović during her “Artist Is Present” piece, is soon loosened: a tongue inflates a cheek, a smile dances behind lips, and then we see triptychs, a pan across a quartet of diverse faces, as well as punctuational views of landscapes, a crash-test mannequin waving its arms, and a looming, early-20th-century office building. (When Reggio employs the iconic signature of Koyaanisqatsi, time-lapse clouds scudding across the sky, it doesn’t irk because it’s a reclaiming of his trope.) Gradually the portraiture expands to groups, surveyed in slow motion: faces bobbing as if down an urban boulevard the short lens doesn’t permit us to see, and a phalanx of handsome college-aged spectators cheering and cringing at an apparent, unseen sporting event on TV. This latter sequence, unfolding over perhaps 10 shots, seems both maximalist in context, and like a calculated “breather” Reggio is giving the audience lest his methods be seen as studied and humorless; it’s still a bit anomalous and grating. In a final third that emphasizes the forbidding natural beauty of North America’s largest swamp, Louisiana’s Atchafalaya Basin, trees stab upward with Daliesque limbs and the entire marshy environment has the etched look of a 1940s big-budget Hollywood matte painting.
The total effect of this controlled, ambitious work is likely to be far from universally shared; it will call up a host of associations and themes in different audiences, reacting to its spectrum of scrutinized objects, from the faces of children on a playground carousel to cinema history’s highest-definition hill of trash. The sheen of the 4K aesthetic resembles not only monochrome paint, but a sort of animated photography—essentially what motion pictures have always been—that fascinates in the “visceral” way that Reggio has claimed he’s after. So has he made just a fetish object for tech geeks, an art-house demonstration reel? Overcoming even missteps like the collegiate rooters or the display of a young woman in a half-buttoned shirt, hair blowing in the wind, that could’ve come from a fragrance ad, Reggio keeps the surface raw and startling enough that the obscurity of “larger” programmatic business shouldn’t nag. (The press notes’ comment that “humanity’s trancelike relationship with technology” and its “massive effects far beyond the human species” are revealed isn’t readily evident on the screen.) Visitors doesn’t add up to one grand epiphany, but an intermittent cluster of small ones, and as such it’s an emotional and sensual pleasure that one should resist calling a trip.