Visitors review: stare into the face of humanity

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Visitors green light

A weirdly beautiful film, eerie in its complicated simplicity, and open to seven billion interpretations, all of them valid.
I’m “biast” (pro): love Godfrey Reggio’s other films

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

When you stare into the face of an ape, the ape stares back. Filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, who made the legendarily riveting and unclassifiable Koyaanisqatsi, returns with another riveting, unclassifiable film about watching human faces watching screens… and yet he opens by inviting us to gaze at the face of a gorilla, who is seemingly gazing back at us. Her name is Triska, and she lives at the Bronx Zoo, though we only learn this by reading the credits at the end of the film. As with all the other faces here, she appears against a black background, removed from any physical or cultural context, and as she’s staring into the camera, she’s actually watching something — a TV show or a movie, perhaps — that we can’t see ourselves. But how should we take her? Why is she here? Is Reggio asking us to consider how very humanlike she is, with the palpable presence behind her eyes and the personality in her face? Is he asking us to consider how very humanlike she is in how she is as mesmerized by the screen she’s staring at as the humans here are?

So many questions like this pop up, unbidden, as Visitors unspools, and it is glorious. There’s less of a story here than even in Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy of films, which had unifying themes such as humanity’s interaction with the natural world tying together their striking visuals and the urgent dissonance of their Philip Glass scores. (Glass is back for this film, to similar disconcerting affect.) Here, humanity itself is the subject, and there are likely seven billion possible different interpretations of what that could mean. Though most of the film is taken up with the parade of unadulterated human faces — young and old, all races and genders, with some aspects of race flattened into a sort of universality by the stark colorlessness of the imagery — we are also invited to consider the dead surface of the Moon, beautifully designed skyscrapers, derelict amusement parks, mountains of garbage, and dying forests. Do they all seem so fresh because we fail to see such things on a regular basis because — as with the people here — we are spending so much time gripped by the screens of computers and TVs? Does the title refer, perhaps, to what a visitor to planet Earth would see, us transfixed by entertainment as our world, both the natural and the artificial, crumbles around us? Is Triska, who returns again at the end of the film, glaring at us accusingly at what we’ve done to the planet and how we don’t even seem to recognize our crime?

Happy thoughts occurred to me too! All people are more attractive when smiling and laughing. Common purpose can bring us together: the mass of individuals walking down a street is disjointed, but the crowd of people watching something (a movie or a sporting event, perhaps) together share an authentic bond. Maybe there is hope for us after all…

This is such a weirdly beautiful film, eerie in its complicated simplicity. I saw it on a big screen in the inescapable, distraction-free context of a cinema, but this is going to play very differently on a small screen at home, which is how most of you will end up seeing it. Will it seem Big Brother-ish, all these faces staring out of a telescreen? I can’t wait to find out, and discover a whole new interpretation of it.

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