Michael Madsen's "The Visit"

An arresting shot opens “The Visit” that would seem to encapsulate the whole spectrum of civilization on earth, from the horses that graze on a grassy knoll to the gigantic Effelsberg Radio Telescope that resides just behind them in Germany, a symbol of the technology that man has created to extend humanity’s reach into the stars. It’s a bold introduction, one that’s followed by an even bolder statement by the film’s director Michael Madsen (a Dane not to be confused with the frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator), who intones in a voiceover, “This film documents an event that’s never taken place” as people are seen in cityscapes frozen in the streets.

The effect is disorienting, but Madsen wants you to see the world anew and in what is a uniquely affecting fusion of form and function, “The Visit” places you in the position of an alien visiting earth for the first time as it investigates the steps that would be taken by scientists, the military and government officials should an alien invasion actually occur. As crazy a conceit as it sounds, Madsen largely pulls it off, corralling a group of experts that ordinarily would appear as talking heads in a drier documentary to ask questions directly to the camera, with his initial disinclination to name them contributing immediately to the otherworldly feeling of the film. Yet Madsen goes much further in creating something simultaneously compelling and distancing, employing occasional trickery such as frame flipping and off-kilter and strangely beautiful camerawork from Heikki Färm to envision familiar places from an entirely different perspective.

Given the amount of talking heads involved, it’s easy to imagine the more standard version of the film, which might’ve been interesting enough to make a short given the intriguing yet limited amount of information there is about preparation in the event of an extraterrestrial landing. “The Visit” builds upon what little official protocol is in place, citing the artifacts meant to represent the human race that were sent into space as part of the Voyager mission on the off-chance another race were to stumble upon it. Madsen also discovers a report of the United Nations’ sole general assembly meeting in which the subject was broached. However, the film largely depends on its experts ranging from Dr. Doug Vakoch, a director of Interstellar Message Composition from the SETI Institute, Malaysian astrophysicist and one-time director of the U.N.’s office for Outer Space Affairs Mazlan Othman, and NASA Sr. Scientist Chris McKay to explain what would happen through the questions they ask, acknowledging that no one would know what would happen until it does yet painting a far more likely picture of the process than has ever been committed to film before.

Besides some awkwardness on the part of a few of the participants in play acting such a scenario, “The Visit” is gripping in laying out how first contact would be approached and while the alienating first-person effect begins to wear off slightly towards the end of its 83-minute run time, by then the film has raised enough provocative questions to keep the mind reeling, particularly about who we are rather than who they are. While “The Visit” bucks the trend of space-oriented films that start from a sense of wonder rather than fact, it does inspire the former, treating its audience as aliens to restore that all-too-human curiosity about what lies beyond our own planet.

“The Visit” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play four more times at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27th at 6 pm at the Temple Theatre, January 29th at 10 pm at the Redstone Cinema 2, January 30th at 11:59 pm at the Tower Theatre and January 31st at 11:30 am at the Holiday Village Cinema 1.