“Visitors,” the transfixing new movie from filmmaker Godfrey Reggio, opens with an utterly astonishing image, one so powerful that it feels uncharitable to reveal it. The rest of the movie continues apace, with 73 more shots — a handful in the feature-film world — unspooling with contemplative slowness, accompanied by an exquisite score by Philip Glass. How can a critic describe in words a film with no words? To paraphrase Steven Soderbergh when he presented “Visitors” at its triumphant world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall: I not only can’t, but I’ll try.
Filmgoers might be familiar with Reggio’s name from his previous three films — “Koyaanisqatsi,” “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi” — which coined a cinematic language all their own, combining a cascade of images, stream-of-consciousness editing, time-lapse photography and the ever-present Glass score, an evocative ostinato of moody foreboding. With so many of Reggio’s techniques having been appropriated by the mainstream, the 73-year-old filmmaker has deconstructed his own grammar, filming “Visitors” not in the rapid-fire synaptic rhythms but as a series of stately black-and-white portraits of Earth’s inhabitants, their natural and built environments, and even a world far, far away.
The images — human, organic, architectural — possess both sculptural solidity and fleeting evanescence, with Reggio’s camera investing them with timeless meaning (in a sequence filmed at a cemetery, crypts rise out of the earth with the grace of ancient Greek temples). Even when they capture things in motion, they sit still, in an elegant faceoff between the two fundaments of filmic structure, montage and mise-en-scene.
But these slow-moving, near-static shots also possess tantalizing ambiguity, throwing viewers back on themselves with gradually dawning questions rather than pat interpretations. The wide-open mouth of a man could be a grimace or a yawn or a cry or a laugh; a group of people sitting impassively, then erupting in emotion, could be watching a sporting event or a film or a video game; a crowd walking in slow motion can be seen moving either with the mechanistic detachment of so many assembly-line pistons or with the graceful, tuned-in flow of a school of fish.
It’s all of the above, it’s none of the above — it’s really all up to you. As Reggio and editor and associate director Jon Kane intersperse shots of their human subjects with vistas of abandoned amusement parks, primordial swamps, empty buildings and a desolate lunar landscape, “Visitors” begins to take on cumulatively more spellbinding force, its juxtapositions inviting viewers simply to observe, internalize and contemplate our own tumult, transience and primal creatureliness. Caught up in Reggio’s mutually mesmerizing gaze, viewers take part in two potent encounters: the first between the subjects and the camera, the second between those images and our own discrete consciousness.
For those willing to join Reggio in his extended meditation, “Visitors” offers a sublime, even spiritual experience, as well as a bracing reminder of cinema’s power to create a transformative occasion. Like so many movies last year — “Gravity,” “All Is Lost” and “12 Years a Slave” among them — “Visitors” restores a sense of monumentality to a medium that has seemed so diminished by recent technological and commercial imperatives — so much so that Soderbergh has felt it necessary to retire. Luckily, he stayed close enough to present “Visitors” to a modern world that the film reflects in ways both celebratory and unbearably sad. Ultimately, “Visitors” is about projection: literally, by way of the crystalline 4K digital images on view at the E Street Cinema, and figuratively, as the dynamic that defines the essence of spectatorship — not as a passive process but, at its best, a transcendent one.
★ ★ ★ ★ Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. 87 minutes.