“The Visit”: Michael Madsen’s low-budget doc about our first encounter with visiting alien lifeforms

By on July 14, 2015

The Visit — subtitled An Alien Encounter — is a breakout documentary that got some critical attention earlier this year when it competed in the World Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival. The film focuses on what it might be like when, or if, mankind has their first encounter with alien intelligent life who’ve come to Earth to pay us a “visit,” only it was filmed from the perspective of the first alien arrivals, with a series of experts and authority figures talking to the camera as if to welcome our new extraterrestrial friends.

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We here at Night Flight love a good low-budget film, because we know how difficult it is to be creative in very expensive and labor-intensive world of filmmaking — it’s even costly for films that been shot in a relatively inexpensive way, on video or digital, or even with an iPhone, like Tangerine, another breakout film which also had its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival — it was shot on an Apple iPhone (the filmmaker Sean Baker says he was inspired by 2012 Spike Lee film Red Hook Summer, in which a budding filmmaker shoots video with an iPad, and also inspired by a Vimeo channel that focuses on iPhone short films — and every now and then we’d like tell you about another low-budget gem we’ve discovered.

(By the way, if you’re a filmmaker and you’ve made a low budget film you’d like for us to see, and possibly feature here on NF, get in touch!)

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The Visit is a remarkably interesting 85-minute documentary film lensed by the rather cerebral Danish director Michael Madsen (no, not that Michael Madsen, he and the actor just share the same name) who is a conceptual artist and the director of multiple award-winning films thus far, including his 2010 film Into EternityThe Visit is actually intended as the second part of a trilogy of which Into Eternity was the first film, a trilogy of films Madsen plans to make about the “way of thinking about and exploring this world, this reality.”

Madsen has also directed Halden Prison in 3D and was a contributor to Cathedrals of Culture, a project initiated by Wim Wenders (also with contribution from Robert Redford), in which “six acclaimed filmmakers turn their talents to capturing the souls of six iconic structures, from the Centre Pomipidou in Paris and the Berlin Philharmonic to La Jolla’s Salk Institute and St. Petersburg’s National Library.” Madsen has also taught at The Royal Danish Academy of Art, The Danish Film School, University of California, University of Western Sydney and School of Architecture, London, and frequently does guest lecturing and has held workshops with titles such as, no lie, “Workshop For Individuals With Absolutely No Idea For A Film.”

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The Visit largely takes place in a benign and rather antiseptically clean UN-city of Vienna, Austria, where the OOSA actually has its headquarters, located right next to the Danube River, which feels appropriate since Madsen’s film is clearly influenced by the work of Stanley Kubrick, and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in particular, which you’ll recall gave us images of a spaceship drifting in deep space along to a bouyant performance of the Richard Strauss waltz “The Blue Danube.”

Madsen has said that he studied Kubrick’s research interviews for 2001, Are We Alone, and watched the film again too, imagining that if aliens did visit us from somewhere else that one of their discoveries might be to go backwards through our cinematic history to evaluate how well we’ve done in depicting the world they came from, and Madsen considers the “visual precision of 2001 as one of the totems of our world that he’d be proud for us to share with our new friends.

Filmmaker Michael Madsen, appearing in his documentary INTO ETER

Madsen’s specialty is making films that look, somewhat philosophically, at the future of humanity and how we deal with the difficult questions and the things we don’t often think about, in this case, how exactly would we respond if the Earth was actually visited by beings from another planet. He sought out, he says, to make “something essentially incomprehensible comprehensible,” and he approaches the topic as though he’s exploring what he says is the “terra incognita of Western self-perception.” What he believes we discover in our imagined discussions with other intelligent life forms is just exactly what humans are, something we probably won’t be able to know until we talk with something/someone that isn’t human.

Madsen’s film attempts such a deeper understanding of our place in the world, and approaches this potentially rather serious topic with such an open-faced sincerity that it cannot help but occasionally seem so absurd as to be made with the same intent as a director would have if he or she were making a comedy or documentary with comical elements.

However, that’s not what is going on here. Madsen sits down with his camera facing directly at experts who would be some of the people who might have to deal with aspects of an alien visit, and he gets them to walk us through a step-by-step scenario that is a little mind-boggling.

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We see interviews with various authority figures, including military men, government spokesmen, various NASA experts and officers from the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, and even scientists from the United Nations’ Office for Outer Space Affairs, or OOSA — did you know there was one? we didn’t! — who walk us through how they would handle the situation, discuss what to tell the media and how they would best avoid mass panic. They ponder who would be the best person to represent the human race, to talk to the alien, and generally help us assuage our fear of strangers by addressing what might happen at the ultimate stranger meet-and-greet.

In fact, that’s how the film begins, with a phone call inside the OOSA, to Deputy Director-General, astro-physicist, Dr. Mazlan Othman, who is told that an alien life form has arrived on earth. Madsen’s film imagines, rightly so, that we would want to sit down as soon as possible, and get the simple questions out of the way first: Why are you here? How do you think? What do you see in humans that we don’t see in ourselves? The Visit, he says, is actually about the emergency plan that the UN doesn’t have.

There are also interviews with theological authority figures, who begin discussing how best to approach chatting with aliens, but the director, an admitted atheist, believes that major world deity-based religions would be in a pickle, telling one interviewer,”For some religions it will be devastating. Christianity would be in deep trouble.”

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One of the best interviews is with BBC wildlife documentary broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, whose calming presence here helps us to understand that there will be some people tasked with keeping a cool head and asking the right questions. We also see the chief of the UN’s outer space office, who is shown in an orange space suit, examining the impenetrable darkness of the alien’s spacecraft.

At 1.3 million (DKK 9 million), The Visit isn’t as low-budget as some others that we’ve been reading about, but in this summer season of blockbusters where the average Hollywood film’s budget is considerably higher, it’s still interesting to see that a film can be a breakout at Sundance and cost a fraction of what most movies cost these days.

Before we forget, he’s an interesting interview with The Visit’s producer, Lise Lense-Møller.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.