The Visit introduces itself via title card as “a simulation.” While its central scenario is fake, all of the people interviewed within the film are real and speaking from legitimate expertise — which the title cards also make sure to point out. It’s been a while since a movie made such a succinct statement on how a documentary can be considered a documentary while being “fake.”
The scenario in question is first contact between humanity and an alien visitor. Officials from different organizations and think tanks concerned with extraterrestrial relations go over how governments and citizens might react to such an event. It’s surprising to discover how many people are involved in this field. There’s a lawyer who specializes in “space law and metalaw” and a theologian who acts as an ethics adviser to the French Space Agency, among other unusual professionals.
The audience is placed in the POV of this visitor, with the doc’s experts addressing the camera as if they are speaking to a being from another world. That’s a mildly interesting conceit, but it’s haphazardly implemented. Sometimes a scientist will be speaking to the fourth wall, but other times two subjects will be arguing or debating one another. It’s annoyingly inconsistent, unless these characters are supposed to be disagreeing in front of the hypothetical visitor. That’s unlikely, since in these scenes they never acknowledge its “presence.”
And then, of course, there are the many slow motion shots of normal human beings going about their business. It makes sense that the movie would want to break up the many sequences of interviewees lecturing the frame, but how is the alien seeing this, exactly? But more to the point, such shots are a bland way to wallpaper the dialogue. After a while, it almost becomes comical that apparently no one in this world can move at a normal speed. And although these scenes are meant to illustrate the behavior of “humanity,” they all seem to come from the same few European streets and exclusively showcase white people.
That’s the real letdown about The Visit: its universalist aspirations fall flat. Despite the movie’s premise, it’s not truly about what might happen if an alien came to Earth. Rather, it uses the prompt of “how would you explain human beings to something that had never met one” as a meditation on our various foibles and follies as a species. This amounts to little more than a series of soliloquies about the senselessness of war and violence and injustice. We’ve heard it all before but often in better, more passionate ways.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2016.