Saturday, January 31, 2015

Sundance ’15: The Visit

It is depressing to think we might be better prepared for first contact with extraterrestrial life than the next terrorist attack. Still, if the aliens ever do come, we will be glad these academics and bureaucrats put some thought into our response. Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen puts them through a dress rehearsal of sorts in his documentary-essay The Visit, which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

So here is the hypothetical: aliens have finally arrived and announced themselves. Madsen has his various expert commentators talk into the camera as if they were greeting and/or negotiating with the extra-worldly beings. Some of them make a lot of sense, such as the biologist maintaining quarantine until each species can determine the threat levels of the opposite race’s bacteria. Of course, this is just as important for the Visitors, considering what happened when they landed at Grover’s Mill in 1938.

The philosophers want to know whether they understand the concepts of good and evil as we know them, which might be practical information, particularly if they do not. Meanwhile, the British press and security officers are not so subtly trying to determine their intentions and agree on some sort of joint statement that will not cause panic. Finally, the former director of the UN’s Office of Outer Space Affairs is delighted to finally have something to justify the agency’s budgets.

Despite the subject matter, there are not a lot of call backs to science fiction in The Visit. However, you can hear echoes of 2001: a Space Odyssey when one commentator gives an imaginative description of his journey inside the alien capsule, somehow decked out to resemble the great entry hall of a European Museum. It is a striking sequence, veering close to outright speculative fiction.

Viewers should be warned, The Visitor shares the same austere aesthetic sensibility of Madsen’s previous documentary, Into Eternity, a tour of the state-of-the-art, subterranean Onkalo nuclear waste storage facility, before it was sealed off from all human contact for the rest of infinity. It should also be rather telling that auterist documentarian Nikolaus Geyrhalter served as a co-producer. Madsen stages some grand set pieces and cinematography Heikki Färm give them all a glossy sheen, but the net effect is often as lulling as it is transfixing.

There is a weird ambition to The Visitor that is quite impressive and it offers some provocative points of discussion. Nevertheless, the languid pace and defiantly ambiguous takeaways seem perversely designed to frustrate all but the most cerebral audiences. It is conceptually fascinating, but most viewers would get what they need from it in a few short excerpts and a handful of insightful reviews. Recommended mostly just for those with a taste for contemplative hybrid documentaries, The Visit screens again this morning (1/31) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.