A Movie That Watches You!: Visitors

01/15/2014 4:00 AM |

Directed by Godfrey Reggio

Like the director’s Koyaanisqatsi, his new film uses lush cinematography, a nonstop Philip Glass score, and generous lashings of slow-motion and time-lapse photography to half-seduce, half-hypnotize us into seeing familiar sights with fresh eyes. Ironically, Reggio’s signature style has been so widely copied in advertising that it can feel a little tired, especially when a subject is shot from below against a sky with time-lapse clouds scudding by. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that this film had something profound to say, even when I wasn’t sure what that was.

There are almost no words in Visitors’ succession of creamy black-and-white shots. There’s no narrative either—except whatever order your mind imposes on the steadily accumulating images. Captured in digital 4k, which holds four times as many pixels per square inch as HD, the shots are almost always held for an extended period—minutes rather than seconds. Some are of transcendently beautiful trees or mountains, and a few show hands typing or tapping at keyboards, though the keyboards themselves have been digitally removed so the movements of the fingers become abstract. More are of picturesquely decaying manmade objects (an abandoned amusement park, trash falling in langorous slo-mo at a garbage dump, old mausolea in a graveyard). But most consist of a person facing the camera, bathed in soft light against a black or very minimal background.

Centered on the screen, the men, women, children and one very dignified lowland gorilla stare back at us, their faces generally so still that you may wonder, is this live action or a still photograph? Like a more sumptuous version of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests, the movie watches you as closely as you watch it. Staring at a series of strangers as they appear to do nothing (according to the press notes, most watched TV or played video games while they were being filmed, while some just looked at the camera) feels odd, even uncomfortable at times. But it’s also magnetic. As the gently persistent camera circles around or pushes in on its often slowed-down subjects, you start to feel almost godlike, a weightless witness floating through space and time. The satellite’s-eye shots of the moon’s surface and Earth that bookend the film reinforce that feeling—and suggest a theory about its deeper meaning. Couldn’t the visitors of the title be us humans, relative latecomers that we are, dropping in on our beautiful blue planet only to
trash it?

Opens January 24