A little over 30 years ago, Godfrey Reggio and Phillip Glass united to make “Koyaanisqatsi,” a tone poem documentary with such a vivid visual style and propulsive soundtrack that it would influence many a movie, music video, and commercial in the decades to come. They ended up doing a “Qatsi” trilogy, following “Koyaanisqatsi“with “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi,” each with diminishing returns. That trend continues with their most recent collaboration, “Visitors.”
“Visitors” is in many ways the opposite of “Koyaanisqatsi.” Instead of movement and thrust, the film is measured and protracted. There are only 74 cuts in its entire 87 minutes, making each cut average about 70 seconds, and at times, it’s a slog. Godfrey has said he wants “Visitors” to be about texture, not text, but it actually feels like the most cerebral of his films and not in a good way, but rather in an overdetermined didactic way. That element also exists in the “Qatsi” trilogy, but it’s buried by the overwhelming aesthetic form in “Koyaanisqatsi,” remains latent in “Powaqqatsi,” and only becomes fully blown in “Naqoyqatsi.”
The third shot in “Visitors” actually features the Latin “Novus ordo seclorum” inscribed on a building blazing before you making the text unavoidable. “Novus ordo seclorum” is literally “New Order of the Ages” and different people interpret it different ways. It was inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States and appears on the one dollar bill to invoke the rise of an American era, but to conspiracy theorists, it means “New World Order.” Reggio follows up this shot with one of a large metallic globe. One can’t help infer that in Reggio’s philosophy, “Novus ordo seclorum” refers to a structural sociopolitical system embracing unfettered technology and capitalism that results in alienation and dehumanization in society, something that is his continuing obsession.
“Visitors” also returns to the Reggio “glare,” first featured in a rightfully famous shot of Las Vegas waitresses in “Koyaanisqatsi.” The glare is embodied by a blank stare that nearly evokes the uncanny valley except that in Reggio’s example, he’s dealing with real human beings. The glare is mostly stoic but when emotions do flash on the subjects face, it feels like inappropriate sneering or a smirk, more disturbing than humanizing. It appears only briefly in two different sections of “Koyaanisqatsi,” but it makes up about a third of “Visitors.” Unfortunately, Reggio doesn’t realize that it’s a technique where less is more, and the more he indulges in the glare here, the sillier and weaker it gets as a functioning aesthetic. That’s especially the case when he applies it to a Bronx Zoo gorilla who opens and closes the film. The glare invites us to anthropomorphize the animal, but it doesn’t work because the gorilla is just an animal whose facial expression just happened to be this way for the few minutes Reggio edited in from the 10 hours of footage he captured of the animal.
Glass’ music is more forced in “Visitors,” and it does not mesh as organically with the visuals as it did for the most part in the “Qatsi” trilogy. There are some striking moments in “Visitors,” like when Reggio changes focus on different faces in a crowd moving in super slow motion, but unfortunately, these are few and far between.