Review: 'The Visit' [Fantasia Festival 2015]

There are about 300 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy alone, each with its own cluster of planets. In the universe, it’s thought that there are at least 100 billion galaxies. No two galaxies, no two star systems, no two planets, will be exactly the same. Try to imagine that largeness, the richness of variety that we know exists. Can we be alone in so large a universal community?

Just looking at the math, it seems the obvious answer, indeed the only answer, is “No.” No, we cannot be alone, cannot be the only intelligent life in the universe.

But our not being alone does not mean we are not hopelessly secluded. The nearest star system is a little over four light years away. That distance, in theory, would require a nonstop trip of about 100 years. It doesn’t look as though anyone is there to greet us. In all likelihood, there’s nowhere there suitable for us to live.

That’s why, despite the odds being firmly in favour of intelligent life existing somewhere in the universe, it’s also quite likely that we’ll never even communicate with it, let alone meet it. If we do either of those things, chances are that it won’t be for a long, long time.

Until then, we have Michael Madsen's The Visit, a rather liberal take on the documentary style that examines the ways that the officials representing humanity – scientists, politicians, military authorities, ethicists – would react to the arrival to our planet of intelligent alien life.

The most interesting liberty taken with this film is that it is told from the perspective of this hypothetical visitor. The camera through which we see the parade of experts is this being’s eyes. The narration is in the second person. When these experts speak, they speak to us, and we are the alien.

They walk us through the process of greeting this sort of alien, from cutting off access to the area of its arrival (there are health concerns involved in alien microbes arriving on Earth), to drafting a message to alert the people to the momentous occasion, to ascertaining that the necessary military precautions are taken care of. We've made too many invasion films for us to not be wary of a little green man popping round our neck of the woods.

For those long-steeped in science fiction, there won’t be too much here that feels new. In a way, it's comforting. The hundreds of stories that have been told of humans and aliens meeting and interacting are, apparently, not far off the mark. People in real life do exactly the things that people in the stories do. In a way, we know what to expect.

But when watching a film for the first time, the comfort of the familiar isn't something that is sought by most. This film is caught in the dilemma of needing to tailor its message to be understandable by people who have never been exposed to its ideas before, but being of particular appeal to those who have long-standing curiosity in its subject matter. Those with less exposure to stories about the kind of interaction examined here will likely find plenty to enjoy, and much that is new, but a little extra depth to the discussion would be valuable for those who are better versed.

Regardless of where you fall in that divide, there's no denying the neatness of seeing the process "in action." Real experts interacting with this alien, asking questions and offering explanations, is quite a bit of fun. The film gets quite emotional at times, too, in particular towards the end of the film, when discussion takes place on issues of interspecies trust, and of how to proceed once humanity has encountered an alien being. One thing the film does well is highlight just how much would change, forever, in the wake of this sort of meeting.

In the end, this film about humans and aliens encountering each other winds up taking us on an interesting trip not just through the process of greeting a foreign life form, but also through our own process for dealing with delicate and stressful situations. We have our priorities, a limit to the risks we are willing to take, and this lurking uneasiness about our collective nature that we have always been unwilling to fully address. Are we inherently dangerous? If you were an alien walking through an alley at night, would you want to encounter a group of humans?