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Visit, The (An Alien Encounter)
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by Jay Seaver

"An alien documentary experience, as is appropriate."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Visit" is apparently meant to be the second in a thematic trilogy of documentaries by Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen, and I'm curious what grand-scaled idea will round them out. I hope it's something a little more like "Into Eternity", where the consideration of long-term storage of nuclear waste felt practical as well as too big to truly understand, as this film's topic of first contact with alien life, while fascinating, winds up both too specific and too vague.

After a bit of discussion about how, for the past 100 years, humanity has been sending a great deal of radio into space, which will inevitably attract the attention of any intelligent life out there. Madsen posits a single alien spacecraft arriving on Earth and landing, and then interviews a fair number of people on how that situation would likely play out. Many are connected with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, headquartered in Vienna, but there are scientists from a number of countries, an expert in space law, and military and political spokespeople from the UK added to the discussion.

As with Into Eternity, Madsen and his interviewees often speak in the second person, addressing the alien visitors rather than the actual audience, and it's not always as natural as it was in the former movie. That's in part because a good deal of the documentary is about how actual communication with extraterrestrials may be impossible, and in part because the subjects only occasionally seem to be let in on the premise, which isn't necessarily compatible with the sort of simulation and explanation they are doing. Madsen also seems to find himself trapped between the general and the specific, like he wants to present the framework of how the world would respond to this sort of encounter but ultimately realizes that it is impossible; there are too many contradictory paths that can play out.

The broad overview does at least give him the opportunity to talk to a number of scientists with interesting things to say, although it might have been more interesting had he cast a larger net - in particular, when a parade of white European scientists talks about how technologically advanced cultures have tended to steamroll the people they encounter with an attitude of "it's sad, but inevitable", one does wonder what a more diverse group would say. The people he does talk to have intriguing input, though, from elderly lawyer Ernst Fasan discussing space law and how "meta-law" might come into play with alien visitors to theologian Jacques Arnauld discussing how, during the period of European expansion, there actually were official rulings that Native American people had souls and were to be treated as human. Astrobiologist Christopher McKay talks about being intrigued by the idea of "second genesis" and how, even if it happened on Earth, our science may not be able to register it because our definition of life as we know it is based around the presence of DNA.

Madsen does an interesting stylistic thing during McKay's interview in particular, flipping the image left-to-right on occasion, which may be a reminder that the aliens being addressed may perceive the world differently but which also suggests even more uncertainty and nervousness on his part. He does things like this throughout the film, in particular using a great deal of very-high-speed photography to create extreme slow motion, mostly of everyday street scenes but in one occasional to show panicked people fleeing. Much of the non-interview footage playing behind narration is intriguing for being things that Madsen and cinematographer Heikki Farm potentially could have shot without staging knowing that context would give it a different meaning, while others are abstract in composition but with a very clear message in mind. There's also a curious recurring sequence that shows a scientist getting into a hazmat suit and walking through various Earthbound locations, with voice-over describing it as walking through the spaceship filled with "human construction"; it's just bizarre in presentation to work.

Indeed, "The Visit" should not be dismissed because it doesn't reach the level of Madsen's fantastic previous film; there is a lot of fascinating material presented in unique ways that the curious will have a lot of food for thought afterwards. Some may wish it were presented in somewhat more conventional style, but shouldn't a tale about something that will clearly change humanity's perspective take a viewer out of his or her comfort zone?

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originally posted: 07/29/15 02:09:18
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Vancouver Film Festival For more in the 2015 Vancouver Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
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