An interesting concept gets a clunky, insufferable treatment in this sci-fi/documentary hybrid
The Visit (Hot Docs Review)
Countless films have been made about aliens coming down to Earth, but now director Michael Madsen brings that concept into the realm of documentary with The Visit. Madsen asks what we as a species would do if an alien came down to our planet, and answers his own question in a rather unique way. He makes the viewer take the perspective of the visiting lifeform, and has his talking heads—various professionals across Europe who deal with the type of hypothetical situation Madsen proposes—talk to the camera directly as if they’re conversing with the alien itself. Think of The Visit as less of a straightforward documentary about a science fiction scenario, and more of a realistic simulation of how to logistically handle the presence of an unknown entity.
At least, that’s what Madsen wants The Visit to be. It’s definitely a fascinating concept, but what sounds good on paper doesn’t always translate well to the screen. Madsen’s choice to take the alien’s perspective falls flat on its face from frame one, a mistake the film never fully recovers from. The interview subjects provide a wide, interesting range of perspectives, but making these people treat the camera as an extraterrestrial only provides one clunky, awkward scene after another. Even worse is when Madsen gets two people together at the same time, like two PR experts from the UK, to discuss handling more operational aspects of the visit with each other. It’s exactly what you’d expect; non-actors awkwardly play acting.
It’s also inconsistent with what Madsen wants to achieve by taking the visitor’s POV. Sometimes the subjects talk directly to the camera. Other times they clearly respond to a question asked of them, and when multiple people talk with each other on camera it’s designed to be conversation between just those people. Madsen just doesn’t commit to the gimmick he lays out, and The Visit becomes largely frustrating since it has no idea of what the hell it wants to do. Also unnecessarily complicating matters is a fictitious storyline where one of the interviewees “enters” the being’s spacecraft, a strange part to add considering the rest of the documentary’s emphasis on realism.
There are some flashes of interesting elements peppered throughout The Visit. Specific facts, like the United Nations having an “Office for Outer Space Affairs,” or the French Space Agency having a theologian as an advisor, are compelling pieces of information. And the film’s use of extreme slow motion when filming large crowds in public turns out to be a simple, effective way to turn the normal into the abnormal, with the smooth, slow-moving images giving off a surreal vibe. In a film filled with sleek visuals and re-enactments, it’s the only time where Madsen comes close to evoking a feeling of observing humans from an outsider’s perspective.
But those moments come few and far between. As The Visit plods along, Madsen begins unveiling the themes he really wants to look at, and they’re the kind of half-baked ideas that easily elicit groans. Madsen realizes that, by having to explain things to an alien, humans would have to confront deep, philosophical questions about themselves. Madsen could use this to explore some interesting existential themes, but instead the film’s narrator blurts out lines like “Man would rather destroy himself than give up the illusion that he controls everything.” It’s an observation that, like the entirety of The Visit, is more insufferable than insightful.