Visitors is the film that reintroduces an uneasiness into the premise that man is not alone. Devoid of drama or narrative, shot in black & white, criticized as ambiguous, it’s a film that plays as though it is reconnaissance footage prior to an alien invasion. Director Godfrey Reggio never reveals who is observing human reaction or even what is being reacted to, but if you’re familiar with his “Qatsi” trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi being the first), with its time-lapse images set to the emotional rollercoaster of Philip Glass’ music, this movie should not pose any obstacle.
With an hallucinatory gaze fixated straight ahead, various people raise their eyebrows, purse their lips, passively ponder what lies before them in what amounts to the first psychedelic noir caught from within the confines of a locked toilet stall.
Visitors begins with a great ape, face forward, intelligence evident in a set of eyes taking in someone or “something.” And while there is no alien presence seen, Reggio anticipates as much with an occasional structure, such as a skyscraper shot from ground level as cascading clouds speed by, giving the shot the consistency of a spaceship in flight. There are scenes of barren moon craters, as well as Earth observed from our moon’s surface.
The film bears the title Visitors, which surely could reference mankind and animal life on this planet as only being temporary. That’s certainly how the Earth Worshippers perceive things, with claims of man-made decay and pollution. But there’s nothing else in this movie to suggest an environmental urgency. The shots of desolate swampland bear a striking alien appearance, either otherworldly or apocalyptic, as though no life could be sustained when, in fact, swamps are the most abundant ecosystem, so much so that their development is reviled!
Linked to Reggio’s Powaqquatsi, which focused on cultures around the world, Visitors traces facial expressions from young and old alike, black and white and Asian are represented. Contactees who believe themselves to have been “abducted” by beings from another world often mention being in a windowless room without markings or distinction, where they are observed, and in some cases surgically examined. Imagine the looks they must’ve given their abductors!
From trauma-induced contortions to yawns and silent verbalization, our connection to the series of faces onscreen is both mystifyingly benign and fundamentally conditioned. If they smile, we tend to respond likewise; if they become panicky, we grow voyeuristic, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever they are seeing.
Visitors has found a way to be graphically visual without ever showing anything that remotely requires a special effect. If you watch it, and refuse to intrude on some personal level, you may find it to be excruciatingly repetitive, but it should be remembered: No one ever sets out to make a “dull” movie, dullness is something the moviegoer brings to the theater with himself.
But for a generation raised on visual effects from Avatar and the words of cretinous academicians, calling Reggio’s film science fiction is no more helpful than comparing it to Cassavetes’ Faces, or Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. All references are lost if black & white photography is seen as a detriment and special effects are required to barricade the untrained eye from all challenges. It’s the unvarnished monochrome expressions that elevate the concept from being a random series of headshots to where the audience notices the eccentricity of commonplace candescence: the human faces attract attention from both human and alien curiosity.
The word leaked out that these subjects were filmed reacting to internet images and TV screens. Who cares?
It was that same kind of useless pondering that occurred the night I first saw Eraserhead, and afterward, everyone was asking, “How’d he do that?” It doesn’t matter, if it’s achieved its cinematic purpose to take its audience and capture that sense that something’s happening here to all of us who are observing it. And it’s unique and stimulating, like nothing else seen.
Visitors does that from the perspective that we are not alone. So who’s watching? We are.