Danish director Michael Madsen (not to be confused with the American actor) builds his latest film around a what-if scenario — hardly an unusual strategy. Except that Madsen makes documentaries.
As its narration states, "The Visit" (not to be confused with the M. Night Shyamalan feature) "documents an event that has never taken place" — that event being the arrival on Earth of intelligent life from space.
Madsen has assembled a U.S.- and Euro-centric array of astrophysicists, military officers, theologians, psychologists and lawyers, most of whom address the camera, and the imaginary alien "you," with burning questions: "What makes you happy?" "What do you care about?" "Why are you here?"
Some get into their roles more than others. And there are moments bordering on parody, as when two British officials agree that David Attenborough should be the designated voice of calm while world leaders sort out the nature of the extraterrestrials' visit.
The film, whose full title is "The Visit: An Alien Encounter," at first feels like a bizarre exercise in conjecture or a brainstorming session for fiction writers, but it turns into a provocative and moving philosophical inquiry. Madsen brings our collective sense of identity into sharp relief through the lens of what could be called a first date with mysterious beings. In explaining who we are to these strangers, do we share our darker truths — say, our capacity for mutually assured destruction?
Using well-curated archival footage and stills, a music cue borrowed from Stanley Kubrick and a dreamlike first-contact simulation, Madsen conjures a sci-fi atmosphere that's at once eerie, doleful and awed. He reveals a few hard facts, too: The job title Director of Interstellar Message Composition, for example, is indeed a thing.
"The Visit: An Alien Encounter"
MPAA rating: None.
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
Playing: Arena Cinema, Hollywood. Also on VOD.