In “Visitors,” Godfrey Reggio’s latest in the series of wordless, trancelike, New Age environmentalist collages that began more than 30 years ago with “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), Triska, the female lowland gorilla, steals the show. She emerges from pitch blackness, her features near human and imposingly totemic, staring straight into the camera. It’s an eerie feeling, taking in the gaze of a supposedly brute animal, who challenges the viewer and whose face reveals a symmetry and depth beyond comprehension.
It happened in “Sweetgrass,” the outstanding 2009 documentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, but that was only an endearing close-up of sheep. Triska, on the other hand, commands respect. She returns a couple of times in the film, evoking allusions to other cinematic primates — those in “2001,” “Planet of the Apes,” and most brilliantly, “King Kong.” But even Triska, despite being abetted by some striking images along the way, can’t rescue “Visitors” from banality.
Uniformly beautiful, shot in radiant black and white, backed by a hypnotic (but not in a good way) score by Philip Glass, with only 74 shots over 87 minutes, “Visitors” lulls and pleases with its individual images. Unfortunately, their glib juxtapositions reveal a thematic shallowness that has not changed over the course of Reggio’s trio of “Qatsi” films (the other two are “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi”). To wit: Humans are cool, all right, but they sure are messing up the world with their thoughtless exploitation of the environment and blind technological advancements.
Reggio relates this moral with shots of derelict human constructions. These are artfully composed images — revealed slowly, so part of the game is guessing what you’re looking at — of gutted apartment buildings, the skeletal remains of amusement parks, or moldering crypts in a New Orleans cemetery. Shot with time-lapse photography, with zooming clouds and flickering nights and days, they suggest the indifferent swiftness of time and decay, evoking the lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
All these scenes of desolation are uninhabited; they’re intercut with shots of people who appear as disembodied heads in a black void, staring into the camera, lurching like the walking dead, their expressions changing almost imperceptibly or with protean fluidity. One little girl in particular amazes with her nuanced progression of emotions, more expressions enacted in a minute and a half than many actors can manage in a career. For the most part, however, these shots seem like United Colors of Benetton ads, but in black and white.
We get the point, and have gotten it since 1982. And aestheticizing it in this way doesn’t make the message any more convincing or urgent. “Visitors” is lovely, soothing, like the cinematic equivalent of tasteful elevator music, but it doesn’t convey as much truth as a single glimpse into Triska’s eyes.