What if an alien invasion really happened? Danish essay documentarian Michael Madsen (“Into Eternity”) answers that question with this “simulation,” in which real-life experts imagine their responses to a visit from another world. Filled with sleek and often surreal imagery, “The Visit” is served at a cool temperature; it fluctuates from fascinating to banal depending on the logistics under discussion. A feat of speculation that amounts more to a curiosity than a major sci-fi movie, it is likely to engross anyone intrigued by the topic while remaining in the outer orbit of a conventional theatrical release.
Billed as “an alien encounter by Michael Madsen” (complete with pretentious signature in the opening credits), “The Visit” begins — in a showman’s touch — with a thank-you from the producers “to the experts and scientists who agreed to participate in this simulation.” The conceit is that “you,” the viewer, occupy the role of the alien in mankind’s first encounter with intelligent extraterrestrial life. “You” are sometimes even addressed as such by the talking heads and the narrator, although the experts seated together also speak to one another, and some of the presentations play in a more straightforward manner.
The interviewees include individuals associated with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and NASA. The subjects covered are not just procedural but also historical and philosophical. Who should speak for humanity? John Rummel, from the Committee on Space Research Panel on Planetary Protection, appears suited up in some sort of padded biohazard tent, explaining the concept of swabs. Christopher McKay, an astrobiologist with the NASA Ames Research Institute, raises the possibility of life that can’t be detected via DNA tests. Fearing even inadvertent biological competition between life forms, he favors separation and barriers, at least initially. (“Nothing personal,” he adds.) In the most eye-roll-prompting digression, Chris Welch, of France’s Intl. Space U., closes his eyes as if he’s some sort of medium and imagines boarding the spacecraft that has arrived.
The bureaucratic protocol appears far more complicated than it might be in another instance of worldwide news. We go to the Ministry of Defense in London, where the retired colonel Paul Beaver and Vickie Sheriff, a former U.K. government spokesperson, debate the wording of an announcement to the public (“We believe no one is in imminent danger”); they cite the need to keep the language simple, the fear over media reports of an “invasion,” and cooperation with other nations.
Doug Vakoch, director of Interstellar Message Composition with the SETI Institute, mentions a spacecraft that was launched in 1977 with recordings designed to present a summary of humanity — and the debated question of whether our self-presentation should mention war and other elements of our dark side. Ernst Fasan addresses interplanetary legal and moral issues. Sheryl Bishop, a social psychologist, speaks of humanity’s collective anxiety in the event of an arrival, illustrated with enacted footage of persons running in slow motion. She also addresses the possibility that we may be slighted. “The scenario in which they get on their ship and take off — I think the entire species would go into collective depression,” she says.
In some ways, Madsen’s free-floating approach bears a similarity to that of film essayist Patrick Keiller (“Robinson in Ruins”). As the interviewees speak, there are simulated scenes involving biosuits, ultra-slow-motion pans of crowds, shots of a military springing into action and many scenes of the camera roving lab and space equipment and museum displays. The scoring is chockablock with fractured radio transmissions and beeps. We hear everything from Arvo Part’s strings to “The Blue Danube” (a tip of the hat to “2001: A Space Odyssey”) to echoing metallic “high frequency” sounds. The use of ‘Scope, unusual for a doc, subtly enhances the idea of a simulation, lending the images composed, artful quality.
Tech contributions ensure that all of this is a fluid, slightly lulling mix. The frequent use of sterile-looking, hyper-clean locations gives even Earth an otherworldly sheen.
A director’s note in the press kit says that, after “Into Eternity,” which examined what might happen to stored nuclear waste 100,000 years from now, this film is the second part of a planned trilogy. The title is bound to prompt confusion with that of the forthcoming M. Night Shyamalan picture.