The mysteries of space and extraterrestrial contact still hold enormous sway over the popular imagination, as evidenced by the recent resurgence of “thoughtful” Hollywood science fiction like The Martian, Gravity and Interstellar. But what would actually go down if intergalactic visitors were to land on Earth in 2015? How would governments react? Are there even protocols in place, or does the United Nations just watch Close Encounters on loop and hope for the benign best?
That’s the general premise behind Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen’s documentary The Visit (not to be confused with M. Night Shyamalan’s latest), which gathers together a group of real-life experts—including UN officials, SETI boffins and NASA scientists—to speculate on how they’d collectively react in the event of an alien landing. Working from the rather hopeful assumption that the visitors will be friendly—because they obviously can’t pick up Fox News in space—the experts yap away while tastefully shot B-roll captures slow-mo images of humanity that could pass for a high-end life insurance commercial (if not quite an alien’s first impressions.)
The assembled talking heads are certainly interesting, and the outline of their proposed reactions in a real-world E.T. scenario is a surprisingly fertile area for exploration. Given humanity’s collective fascination with the subject, it’s odd to think that historically only one official contingency was put in place, when the UN addressed the possibility of alien contact ahead of sending its Voyager probe into space back in 1977. As one furrowed brow notes of the lack of a plan: “The longer we don’t know, the greater the fear of the people—and the greater the difficulty for the government to provide reassurance.”
Intercut with the pondering is an imagined sequence involving a NASA emissary charged with boarding the alien craft, which generously cribs its ideas—and a fair chunk of imagery—from everything from 2001 (a 360-degree camera tilt around an imagined cathedral) and Interstellar (a simulated library) to The Man Who Fell to Earth (a chamber lined with cosmic cones.) That it’s all rather handsomely composed isn’t a bad thing, however, and the documentary’s willingness to engage with popular imagery give the bureaucratic chatter some much-needed narrative ballast.
Alas Madsen’s documentary is both fatally straight-faced and devoid of much in the way of its own imagination; so while there’s plenty of curiosity in what the experts have to say, there’s little to indicate that it was worth devoting an entire 83-minutes of film to. The Visit also fails to address one of the arguably glaring reasons that no “official” alien contact on Earth has been recorded: they’re not so much extraterrestrial as interdimensional.
“We humans rarely recognise our own limitations,” the film’s narrator intones, “and regard ourselves as the center of the universe.” In view of such an admission, it’s doubly disappointing that Madsen and his assembled experts’ adhere to such traditional modes of representation regarding alien life. By limiting itself to the usual thought processes in line with how humanity views possible extraterrestrial travelers, The Visit—despite noble intentions—ends up wheeling out the obvious, to diminished effect. Then again, this is the sort of documentary that concludes—without a trace of irony—with David Bowie’s all-purpose galactic standby “Space Oddity,” itself managing to say more about man’s condition despite being trotted out billions of times.
Really, though, when your “documentary” on alien contact is little more than stiff speculation, there’s as much realism (and a hell of a lot more fun) to be found by watching, say, The Day the Earth Stood Still or Mars Attacks!—both of which probably offer a more accurate depiction of humanity’s “noble” reaction to alien visitation.