Director Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass, under the aegis of producer Steven Soderbergh, team up once more for "Visitors," their fifth project together.
In 1983, Reggio and Glass collaborated on "Koyaanisqatsi," a ground-breaking cinematic rumination on the majesty of nature and the folly of human exploitation of nature. The film triggered an avalanche of similar movies, such as "Atlantis" and "Baraka," but none of them achieved what Reggio and Glass did with the 1988 release of "Powwaqatsi," the second in their "-qatsi" trilogy. (The titles derive from the Hopi language.) A short film, "Anima Mundi," also resulted from the two collaborating, but it was the third in the trilogy that fans were waiting for. Alas, "Naqoyqatsi," a chiding film that vaguely condemned capitalism and a way of life that essentially declares war on the Earth, was a disappointment.
With "Visitors," Reggio and Glass embark on a project that forsakes the computer graphics of "Naqoyqatsi" and focuses, much like "Powwaqatsi" did, on human faces and on nature. Where "Powwaqatsi" emphasized the human organism coming up against technology, and the impact of the modern way of life on traditional cultures, "Visitors" seems to restrict itself to first-world people, filmed in a controlled environment: Deep black shadows, silver-toned whites that give skin a shimmer.
People aren't the only ones who are given exceptional visual treatment here. After a prelude that offers the audience the chance to gaze upon a gorilla (who gazes back), the camera glides out of a building -- abandoned looked, brilliant white beneath a pitch-black sky across which white clouds scud in fast-forward. Then we see a metal depiction of the globe (it looks like a commercial sign or a piece of propaganda sculpture). Finally, we see a lunar landscape: Airless, exaggerated, pitted with impact craters. We get it: It's as though life on Earth, including our own closest primate cousins, is looking back at us in this film, wondering what we are up to.
Indeed, "Visitors" is poses a series of questions. Many shots are of an abandoned amusement park; is the film critiquing our tendency to frippery? Or lamenting the coming day when the fun and games will be over? At another juncture, the camera glides across the trashed interior of a dilapidated building, headed toward the blinding light streaming in from a pair of broken-in doors. It seems to be wondering whether we will ever be satisfied with what we have, rather than driving ourselves to an ultimate extreme of industrial shabbiness and poverty.
Most intriguing are long portrait shots of faces: People of diverse ages and ethnicities, some of them with care-worn faces. The adults seem to stare blankly, as do many of the children, but a few kids show a spark (one little girl seems to be telling a story in sign language). Later on, an audience of adults peer out at us from the screen, even as we peer at them: They are rapt, and as they react and respond, it's impossible not to wonder what they are seeing. A sports event? A comedy? Or are they meant to be looking right at us, and reacting to our foolishness as a race?
This is a meditative movie, made up of beguiling images and mesmerizing music -- much as the other four collaborations between Reggio and Glass. But this film has something extra lovely in its rich, inky blacks and gelid, silvery skin hues and blank, stark whites. If only Warhol could see what his hours-long filmic portraits of people and buildings has given rise to, all these years later.