Sundance 2015 Review: THE VISIT, A Speculative Documentary
So, the aliens have landed.
Well, not really. But let's for a moment say they have. E.T.s are in town, and they're ready to talk. To whom do they converse? Who do we, collectively, send out to initiate the initial chat? And what would we even talk about?
Consider The Visit, directed by Michael Madsen, as a speculative documentary. It plays as a delightfully playful thought experiment that's treated with the seriousness required. This is heady stuff, and The Visit manages to make a meal of it.
Structurally it's fairly simple. We, in the point-of-view of the camera, are said aliens. We, the audience, are placed in a position to confront, or at least converse, with a series of political and military leaders. We meet the United Nations personnel charged with this exact situation, and hear from the SETI scientists who have spent years asking just how we should behave during first contact. We see government spokespersons struggling with messaging, and hear from members of the military who struggle to articulate how a race that has the weaponry to annihilate itself with destructive weaponry can itself be trusted during this face-to-face talk.
Interspersed with these interviews are dreamy, slow-motion shots of people in motion. It's a slightly affected way of getting across our shared humanity, but it does give the film a surreal air. Other shots with a man in an environment suit coming to terms with the truly alien echo the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, especially a scene in that film in which a Victorian parlour is used to make sense of the flying beams of light incomprehensible to our meagre ape brains. Here we get strange, pointed cones in an anechoic chamber or the towering stacks in a library. We're in places that we've made as a species, and yet in this context they feel very alien indeed.
In terms of an arc of a story, there's not much that the film does. It perhaps could have been just as effective as a shorter piece, getting to its point about the strangeness of the encounter and the earth-shattering effect that the visitation would have. On the other hand, its laconic pace makes one feel a bit like floating in space, drawn into the gravity of the situation, taken in by the immense implications of what's at play.
It's not likely that you've seen a film like The Visit before. A deeply cerebral film, it's nonetheless an entertaining one with compelling imagery and a fascinating premise. This speculative documentary is not for those easily distracted, but for those willing to take on the voyage into the unknown. It's a journey with many rewards.