Category Archives: FILM REVIEW

THE VISIT – Michael Madsen

The Visit is a poetic, allusive reflection on encountering an actual intelligent lifeform. Madsen’s documentary asks the question how a realistic alien arrival scenario would impact and upset terrestrial governments and militaries. Real life scientists working at NASA, the United Nations or the Seti institute respond in a manner as if the arrival has actually taken place. In The Visit’s fictional, potentially real situation, the silent, passive presence of the never shown aliens leads to an increasing nervosity among state and military personnel.

Here a couple of transcripts, with the scientists adressing the alien/the viewer directly:

My particular interest is searching for a second Genesis of life. The question I want to know is ‘has life started separately, independendly, somewhere else’. Hence my interest in what you might represent. My question would be ‘does the life that you represent, constitute a separate, independent origin than the life that I represent. Are we distant cousins,  or are we completely separate, independent life forms. It’s possible, that here on eath, there is a second Genesis we have not yet discovered. All life that we discovered is related, is part of what I call ‘the first Genesis’. But there may be life that we have not discovered and we haven’t discovered it because our methods of detecting life are specific to life as we know it (f.ex. DNA testing). We may be blind to this second Genesis present right here. This is why some persons have named it ‘the shadow biosphere’. Maybe right here in our gardens, maybe even on our skin are living organisms that are so different from us biochemically that we wouldn’t even recognize them with our life detection instruments. (…)  I mentioned that on earth we only have one example of life, one shared biochemistry. My intuition is, the explanation for that is competition at the Genesis level, if you will. And, we ate the competition. We ate them out of house and home. The reason we see only one type of life on earth is an ecosphere can only house one organism, one lifeform and we have outcompeted all the others, they’re gone, they’ve been rendered extinct. (…) Well that opens up the scary prospect that if your lifeform represents a different biochemistry and is accidentally released on earth, or if we accidentally contaminate your spacecraft, that without any malicious intention, the lifeforms will compete. And for that reason I advocate a barrier to any interaction biologically between you and us, until we resolved those questions; so the assumptive precautionary principle is separation. Nothing personal (smiles).           Christopher McKay, Astrobiologist, NASA Ames Research Centre

‘500 years ago, people from Europe, one of the continents on earth, discovered a totally new world. They asked themselves ‘who are these people’ and, more precisely, ‘are they human?’ (…) ‘do they possess a soul?’ (…) And they tried to find proof of religious attitudes, they tried to find if these people have empathy…’ (…) So a deciscion of our will. I can decide to be human with you, and if I decide to be human with you, you receive from me a certain human identity.            Jacques Arnould, Theologian, Ethics Advisor to the French Space Agency, CNES

In our history, whenever a more advanced civilisation have met with the lesss advanced, in almost all cases, the less advanced civilisation has suffered.         Dr. Sheryl Bishop, Social Psychologist, Professor, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston

Our fear is that, perhaps another civilisation will come to earth and do what we have done to one another. My hope is that, in the same way your technology is advanced, your morality is also more advanced than ours.            Doug Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition, SETI Institute

Slowly, The Visit introduces profound, ambiguous sentiments towards a potential extraterrestrial Other. Because of the alien’s silence we humans need to fill the gaps, because of our tendency of wanting to bring the unknown into the known.

On another note, judging from the trailer it feels as if Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Arrival is a mix between Ted Chiang’s Story of your Life and The Visit. Filming of Arrival began in mid June 2015, The Visit had its premiere at the Sundance Festival in mid february 2015. Hard to say if Denis saw the movie at Sundance or before or whether the production was already too advanced to incorporate some of The Visit’s visual approach. Anyhow, it’s fascinating how elements of the two overlap.




THIEF – Michael Mann

Thief (1981) is a beautiful film to look at. Mann introduces his signature trope of obsessive men finding their equal opponent. In this case Frank, played by Caan, finding and fighting a high-level gangster boss named Leo.

Frank’s actions ask for a saturation point. In Mann’s filmic universe this intimate, fatalistic and mainly male development is a trajectory with a limit the men depicted need to reach in order to face an equal opponent as if it was a destiny violently wished for. In Thief,  Leo is the personification of this opponent. In Heat it’s the Al Pacino character, and so on. The underlying theme of these men’s personal struggles might be Mann’s take on the darker side of the American Dream. The men in his films seem to overdo the dreaming as they find themselves, gradually, in a nightmarish standoff against a strong adversary – perhaps an extrapolated version of their inner enemy. These difficult but somehow intriguing men never materialize their monetary dreams as they appear to love to physically struggle too much. They find reason in the fight itself, pushing themselves to reach the last stage, the last fight, vitally bursting with despair and rage. It’s a Mann kind of silent, a Mann kind of twisted take on the ever regressing capitalist logic of personal ascension through competition and work. A lonely rage lies within Frank like ominous clouds. A rage nurtured by lost time in prison, by dreams cut short. Frank and other of Mann’s character’s struggles are considered in the context of a society that rather unhealthily celebrates the individual breakthrough.

But I wasn’t quite interested in this aspect. Rather, on some other level, thief can be seen as a series of portrayals of objects in action. There is an abundance of close-ups of objects – tools they use for the bank heist, telephones, spying equipment etc. Of course these tools serve a purpose – to make a call, to break into a safe. Yet in the context of the early 80s with a new technological age looming, the depiction of objects in Thief can be seen as an almost nostalgic musing on the beauty of heavy or cabled machinery threatened by obsolescence. Here, technology is technology to be used, to be held and manipulated. It’s technology mixed with street dirt. Frank makes and receives calls in his bar, the 80s way of always being reachable. In the main heist scene, the three thieves work the bank safe in black protective wear. Mann shows the stylized, performative act in full, as if celebrating the collective effort executed in collaboration with modified, personalized machinery.

I haven’t watched Michael Mann’s more recent hacker thriller Blackhat. It would be interesting to see how he depicts activities of objects now moved to a digital realm.

Thief is sublime pre-internet art.



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