How to make a documentary about an event that never happened? Director Michael Madsen takes the genre to a spin by portraying, moment by moment, how governments and scientific institutions would deal with an alien arrival.
The concept is simple, and the execution on target – interviewees speak to camera, treating the audience as the supposed Alien; governments discuss the right procedures to avoid general panic and retaliation; a man volunteers to explore the alien spacecraft. A quick history of Humanity’s trials to get in contact with outer space intelligences is summarised by the Voyager Project. The Alien is presented with what it means to be Human, and our concerns about its arrival. In the end, we are left with no answers.
Full of strong visuals and a minimalist classic soundtrack (Michael Nyman be green with envy). The Visit feels more like a long poem than a documentary, and perhaps therein lies its fault. At points its associative montage randomises, making us audience reach for a meaning that the director clearly wants transcendental. But what actually happens is, as the eye candy is so intense, we end up feeling we’re watching a sophisticated showreel for cranes and dollies, or slow-motion cameras, and forget all about the aliens. The amount of different locations, some of then barely used and/or explored but for a few beauty shots, adds up to the sense that Madsen may have gone a bit too far out with his technical toys.
Still, in a sense, this is a documentary about a Non-Happening, but cameras need to capture something. When human beings are on shot, when scientists and government representatives talk to the camera in all seriousness, that’s when The Visit reveals its ultimate power. Because we are given the insight of the high powers decisions, and follow the logic that will go from “we come in peace” to “you’re too different for us”. Humanity is thus portrayed as a knowledge-hungry civilization, which defines itself by conquering the Unknown, and by imagining events that did not exist before. Poignancy reaches a high when, as deciding what to put inside the Voyager (a satellite containing examples of human culture, that was sent into outer space as a “message in a bottle” for other intelligent civilizations), Humanity decided it would be for the best to leave the bad bits out. You know, war and all that jazz.
In the tradition of Godfrey Reggio, but still going a bit further, Michael Madsen’s The Visit may be as flawed as Humanity itself, but it’s still worth enjoying.
The Visit is part of the East End Film Festival, happening in London until 13th July. For more information please check www.eastendfilmfestival.com