‘The Visit’: Sundance Review

The Visit
Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
Thinking the unknowable

Danish director Michael Madsen’s documentary film considers the implications of an extraterrestrial arrival on Earth.

Alien visitation has been treated by any number of movies with varying degrees of drama, suspense and humor, but rarely as individualistically as artist and filmmaker Michael Madsen’s rather impressionistic documentary The Visit. Subtitled “An Alien Encounter,” the film examines humankind’s potential response to extraterrestrial contact on our home planet.

By turns realistic, contemplative and surprisingly credulous, this sometimes insistently experimental film seems unlikely to generate much interest beyond international festivals and Euro broadcasters following its Sundance debut. 

Madsen, a prolific conceptual artist and documentarian, adopts a scenario positing that some number of extraterrestrials have arrived on Earth and eventually encounter various human emissaries. This perspective also tacitly assumes that these visitors would be detectable, able to somehow communicate with humans and would remain nonthreatening (at least initially). Prompted by a chance reference to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, an actual UN agency based in Vienna, Madsen’s approach leaves aside any discussion concerning alleged UFO flybys, alien abductions, Area 51 cover-ups or almost any other theories that such an encounter may already have taken place.

Consulting UNOOSA staff, legal sources, NASA personnel, space scientists, former military representatives and experts in space communications and engineering, Madsen is curious about the questions these specialists would have for an ET during “first contact.” Most of the experts’ queries center on the alien’s origins and intentions on Earth, as well as its mental and emotional modalities. Many of the questions also are frankly existential, such as “What makes you happy?” “Do you know what is good and what is evil?” and, of course, “Why are you here?”

Both military and legal sources interviewed emphasize that once an alien spacecraft has been discovered, a perimeter should be established to limit access to the landing site. UNOOSA astrophysicist and former director Mazlan Othman pinpoints the need to protect the visitor from undue stress occasioned by human intervention. The retired British military experts featured appear particularly concerned with maintaining public safety, so their queries zero in on the visitor’s intentions on Earth. The scientists profiled note that both humans and the ET need to be prevented from contaminating one another, as well as our planet, so their inquiries focus on astrobiology and how to manage large-scale human response to a visitation.

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Throughout the film, these subjects speak directly to the camera, as if discussing their concerns with a visitor from outer space. Madsen intersperses these interviews with several semi-narrative story strands, including a non-dialogue segment depicting a military biohazard unit scrambling in response to some unspecified emergency and soaring shots of elaborately ornate European museum interiors and artifact exhibits, perhaps intended to depict the grandeur, or perhaps futility, of human civilization.

Unsteady-camera footage shot on the streets of several European urban centers is modified by stop- and slow-motion effects to give the impression of an alien viewpoint, a technique that’s both disorienting and confusing, considering that the film’s scenario assumes that a visiting ET would be confined to a spacecraft in a secured area. Much of this content is too impressionistic and unfocused to convey coherent ideas or information, however, becoming increasingly distracting with frequent repetition.

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Leaving aside the near certainty that all major space-faring nations doubtless have military plans already prepared in the event of a hostile alien encounter, a likelihood Madsen doesn't choose to consider, the film makes a variety of somewhat simplistic assumptions that are perhaps necessary for it to function narratively. For instance, there’s no discussion of an appropriate method for alien communication, just an inference that ETs would understand Earth languages, rather than a more universal technique that might involve sounds, musical forms or mathematical expressions. Overall, the film is limited by presumptions that alien life-forms would be visible to humans, communicative in a manner that we could interpret and conscious of the concerns that preoccupy our own species.

Clearly The Visit amounts to an inquiry that’s rather more philosophical than practical and this “humanistic” perspective may eventually prove to be a valuable approach in the still-evolving fields of extraterrestrial inquiry, but as feature filmmaking it remains conspicuously unfocused.

Production company: Magic Hour Films

Director-writer: Michael Madsen

Producer: Lise Lense-Moller           

Director of photography: Heikki Farm           

Editors: Nathan Nugent, Stefan Sundlof           

Music: Karsten Fundal           

Sales: Cinetic Media


No rating, 83 minutes