It may not be on everyone’s DVD shelf, but filmmaker Godfrey Reggio’s first film Koyaanisqatsi – released in 1982 – was a landmark piece of cinema. Comprised mainly of slow motion and time-lapse shots, the film had no narrative in the strict sense of the word, it simply observed our world, both human and natural, and left it up to the viewer to form their own ideas. Stunningly shot (cinematographer Ron Fricke went on to make similar films Baraka and Samsara), Koyaanisqatsi revolutionised techniques that we now take for granted and would be referenced in places as far afield as Grand Theft Auto, Madonna videos, and even an episode of Scrubs. Reggio followed this up with two more films to complete the Qatsi trilogy and now returns three decades later with Visitors, a film similar in concept, but completely different in its execution.
Filmed in a low-key, velvety black-and-white, Visitors runs for 87 minutes and contains only 74 shots. These long takes result in something that unravels at a snail’s pace, treading an incredibly fine line between narrative cinema and full on video installation. The takes come in three distinct flavours: striking time-lapse shots of abandoned buildings – vast monoliths that serve as epitaphs to former human glories – are cut with CGI recreations of footage filmed by astronauts over the moon, but it’s the third kind of shot that dominates proceedings. Reggio has amassed hours of ‘video portraits’, ultra-slow motion shots where his human subjects stare blankly into the camera.
If there is a message to be taken home here, it’s very much open to interpretations. The broad subject is obviously humanity and its impact on the world it inhabits, but because of the extreme length of each shot, the film moves at too slow a pace to allow a cohesive narrative to form. As an art installation these ideas might work, but as a film designed to be seen in cinemas or at home on a television, Visitors is an experiment at odds with its format.
This doesn’t mean, however, that audiences won’t take anything away from the film. Reggio’s “moving stills”, as he calls them, are stunning and it’s often fascinating to stare into his subjects’ eyes, wondering about their situations. The film’s greatest achievement, though, is its score. Philip Glass’ first ever film score was for Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi and he has since gone on to compose for many films, but Visitors might just be his finest work. Fantastically balancing hope and tension, Glass perfectly captures the ambiguousness of the film’s message.
Visitors will work for some but fall short for many, it is an experiment in filmmaking that attempts something new but ultimately fails. Koyaanisqatsi was fantastic because it was fun; it was experimental but also very accessible. This isn’t. The ambiguous narrative and sluggish tempo will grate on all but the most enthusiastic. For a film whose credits claim it was “shot on location in Louisiana, New York, New Jersey, and over the moon” its all just a little too serious.