What’s in a face? The first and final images in Godfrey Reggio’s brooding, wordless film "Visitors" are of a gorilla staring into the camera. You can read anything you want into the beast’s inscrutable gaze. Its deep-set eyes may convey primeval wisdom or atavistic aggression, or both, depending on your mood and the impulse to anthropomorphize what you see.
As the stream of images — mostly human faces filmed in black and white — proceeds, that simian observer lingers in your mind, conjuring thoughts of evolution and the balance between the rational and the bestial aspects of human nature. The film consists of 74 shots that Reggio calls "moving stills." Most last for about a minute. The subjects are never identified.
In its final appearance, the gorilla seems to be watching over us or looming as a menacing final rebuke to our noblest aspirations, as if to say, "Don’t fool yourself. This is who you really are. We’re not all that different."
"Visitors" arrives nearly a dozen years after the conclusion of Reggio’s experimental Qatsi trilogy: "Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance" (1982), "Powaqqatsi: Life in Transformation" (1988) and "Naqoyqatsi: Life as War" (2002). Like those films, "Visitors" has a sober, churning score by Philip Glass that evokes ceaseless turbulence and profound ambiguity. Some of the music is neither in a major nor a minor key, but the harmonies still tilt toward minor.
There is no overall narrative arc to imagery that might be described as a very sophisticated Rorschach test with an environmentalist subtext.
With its slow-motion momentum and absence of color, "Visitors" is very different from the Qatsi trilogy, in which gorgeous, time-lapse photography and pulsing music evoked the rush of civilization hurtling into the unknown. Since the 1980s the visual concepts of "Koyaanisqatsi" have been so thoroughly co-opted by advertising that they have lost their novelty and become a cliche. What felt scarily out of control in the 1980s today feels familiar and exciting.
"Visitors" turns its predecessors’ concepts inside out. The trilogy evoked the destruction of nature through humanity’s headlong embrace of technology. Here, time slows to a near standstill as the film peers into humanity’s troubled soul, glimpsed through the individual faces, which sometimes appear to be studying us as intently as we are studying them. With the most minute of facial tics, an expression can change from sullen to amused, though it never seems happy so much as pleasantly distracted.
As you gaze at these individuals — of all ages, races and types, male and female — you realize how extraordinarily different one person’s physiognomy is from another’s. Each human is an autonomous little world, with a distinctive physical and emotional climate.
You also realize that there is no such thing as an expressionless face: The cliche that the eyes are the windows of the soul holds true. Each pair of eyes conveys an entire personal history. Even in children you sense a primal animal cunning and aggression.
The human faces are contrasted with recurrent images of an abandoned amusement park and of a large, empty building that resembles an institution of some sort. There is a sequence, filmed in Louisiana bayou country, of trees growing in water. Shots of the moon’s pockmarked surface suggest that "Visitors" is a journey to the moon and back. The title evokes science fiction, and the gorilla echoes "2001: A Space Odyssey."
The title "Visitors" implies that aliens are the subjects. If so, might they be ourselves, the rulers of the planet but also its despoilers? Of course, all of us, with our brief stays here, are, quite literally, visitors to Earth.
The word for the film is transfixing.
Review by Stephen Holden, New York Times