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​The Very Serious Business of Figuring Out How Earth Will Handle First Contact with Aliens

If aliens landed in Central Park tomorrow, how would humankind respond? Would we point every tank and gun squarely on the spacecraft? Or would we offer a more neighbourly greeting?

A scene from The Visit.

If aliens landed in Central Park tomorrow, how would humankind respond? Would we point every tank and gun squarely on the spacecraft? Or would we offer a more neighbourly greeting? What questions would we ask these extraterrestrials? And what would we tell them about us?

The Visit, a documentary by Danish director Michael Madsen, presents a scenario: aliens have arrived on earth, we know nothing of their intentions, only that they are here. Madsen asks experts from the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (this is a real office that exists at the UN), and other scientists, ethicists, government officials, and public relations personnel to explain how they would respond to this event. The result is a step-by-step guide for dealing with humanity's first-ever encounter with intelligent life from space.

We spoke with Madsen about getting scientists to agree to play pretend, what discovering intelligent life would really mean for humankind, and about choosing the ideal spokesperson for humanity.

VICE: I guess the first thing to ask is why? Why did you want to make a movie about how humankind would respond to an alien invasion?
Michael Madsen: I think that the greatest event for mankind to ever experience would be extraterrestrial life—to meet life from elsewhere. I think that would question everything that we hold to be true about ourselves and our particular place in the universe. In that respect, I think this is a unique scenario by which to explore something about human understanding and human self-perception and also, of course, ideally create a kind of a mirror. That's what I've been trying to do with The Visit.

So what sorts of questions did you want the audience to ask themselves while watching this? What were you hoping to achieve with the film?
I'm interested in having the audience be the main character in the film in a way. By that I mean that I'm interested in putting the audience in the shoes of an alien, so to say—if they are wearing shoes, that is.

I'm interested in using this outside perspective of a creature coming from elsewhere, I'm trying to create that viewing position outside of human understanding, outside of human self-evidence about ... everything in this world that we happen to inhabit. So hopefully, when watching this film, all the questions that these experts are struggling with—and some of them would, most likely, be appointed to perform these roles. I assume that a kind of a task force would be formed in such an event. But I'm interested in having everybody in the audience ponder these questions themselves. What would they be asking about? What would they be explaining about human beings? What's important to understand about human beings? These are the things that I'm interested in, and you can also say that, in a way, I'm trying to create a kind of philosophical launch within the audience, in terms of these questions.

Let's talk a little about the scenario itself. The UN doesn't actually have a plan, but the film features various experts who give their opinions on how they'd respond to an invasion. Can you explain how the scenario in The Visit was formulated? How did you choose which experts to speak to and also which steps to include in this scenario?
I think that the scenario in The Visit can only be understood as an ideal scenario. By that I mean things would not unfold as depicted in The Visit—although I think that the military aspects, or the concerns, and the perhaps calls for action, I think they are very close to what would most likely happen. And, of course, the film is made without a script, because I wanted all the individual experts to just respond as they would actually do if they were in this situation. So I didn't want to create a scenario that they would have to adhere to, it's all based on how they have chosen to react. But, it's an ideal scenario in the sense that these are experts—as far as you can be an expert in this field—but they are experts in [their fields]. And some of them have also been thinking a lot about such an eventuality. But who knows if somebody comes and they land in a field ... and address the cows in the field, not the farmer. Of course, you don't know about those things. Let's say the first contact is performed with children, for example. It might be better, I don't know, but it would be a completely different scenario in terms of the mechanisms in it. But I do believe that the question about what's a human being, I think that question would come into play in any encounter you can envision. Because we would come into play ourselves.

But it's an ideal scenario. This was the only way I could think of in which I, to some extent, could bring some kind of authenticity into this speculation. By means of using people in real decision-making positions and also, for example, positions within a government—in this case the UK government—people who had knowledge of a kind that would have to be used, for example, in terms of how to address the public and so on.

Was it difficult getting experts to agree to the film? I'd imagine that some might be worried about how this might be perceived.
I think this was a concern from all of the experts. I really understand it very well because they are, of course, putting their professional reputation on the line. There is no empirical evidence, et cetera, so you are taking a risk as a scientist. But this is also why I first approached the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to accept to be in the film. And after they agreed to this—and that took about a year with different meetings and so on—after this, I could tell this to the other experts that I approached. Plus, I said that I would hope you would find the time to look at my previous film, Into Eternity, and you will see, I think, how I work and that will address some of your concerns, in terms of that this is not a UFO film, it's not a sensation film or a conspiracy or anything like that. I'm genuinely interested in some of these philosophical and existential questions that such an encounter would [bring forth] and also, of course, as I said earlier, this is a mirror. It's not a film about aliens, it is ultimately a film about ourselves. And this is what [the experts] understood.

But it was also, I think, for some of these persons—I mean, some of them told me, "This is the best interview I've ever given," and I think it's because, in a way, they were, by this sort of conceptual device of talking to the camera as if it was a visitor from elsewhere, it somehow freed some of the experts.

They got to indulge their imaginations.
Yes. They really dived into it.

How much of this scenario, or how we mentally prepare for this kind of event, do you think is informed by popular culture?
I think it's soaked in popular culture and popular imagination. And I think that is potentially disastrous. This is my opinion, although I share it, but it's another anthropologist who's been suggesting that because films, literature and so on [have been] dealing with invasions and hostile invasions [for the past 100 years]—beginning with, of course, War of the Worlds—that would inadvertently mean that we would respond ourselves in a defensive, therefore also a hostile, way. That we would most likely not be able to perceive even a friendly gesture. And the question is—this is something that I was very interested in exploring with the experts—the question is, of course, to which extent are we able to perceive something that is not like ourselves? How can we see something that is fundamentally different? And this is also of course what is being discussed in terms of lifeforms and so on. But how do we actually detect life that's not like life on earth? And, of course, with it comes other minds, other feelings, other emotions, other types of memory, other perceptual faculties, it's just exponentially more difficult. But, of course, and that is something that I hope is in the film in a way, of course there is something infinitely wondrous about this. Because what if somebody comes here and has a completely different experience of reality and we could learn something from that and could of course expand our own world? And then we aren't talking about fearful scenarios and so on anymore. But as we know from earth, people who think differently to oneself, can sometimes be very difficult to understand or just embrace.

It was interesting because you have some experts who are saying we might not even be able to detect that alien life is among us, and then you have others who make the very human assumption that, as humans, the most intelligent life form on our planet, we will be able to experience this event or to connect with these other beings.
This, of course, is something that's very contested philosophically, but it's a part of human self-understanding today, modern human self-understanding, to have this idea that ultimately we can gain access to everything by our understanding. I would say that this can also leave humans very lonely in a very, in my mind, cold place where everything is understood, where no mystery is left. But of course, this fear that is also in the film, this loss of control that I think would be a result of such an encounter, I think it's very interesting because we understand ourselves not only in the centre of the universe, but also in the centre of control. That we understand and we master reality, and I think that would be, just the presence of something else would tell us that we don't do that. That would be, for a modern human being, for a time that hails individualism and all those things, that would be very, very frightening.

If there's one thing the film can say definitively it's that we don't really have a clue what we'd be facing in the event of an alien invasion. So what is the point of a plan even? Would it just be a way for us to feel in control?
Yes, it's true that the military and the press begin to talk about this being interpreted as an invasion, but it's never clear in the film, it's just something turns up. But I think that the most difficult thing to prepare for is, of course, the event where you don't know exactly what it is, but where you sort of say, "Open your mind to what can this be for me."

I think what drives humans into space, and has already—we have skimmed the surface in a way. We have gone short distances in reality—but what drives us out there and what drove us across oceans and so on is ... curiosity and this might also help us in such an encounter. And also I think we should perhaps think about [the possibility] that other intelligent life might also be curious. It might also just cross space to see if there is life. They may also be scared shitless if they come here and meet us.

But hopefully there will be fascination, too. Perhaps that can be the common ground. I don't know, but that could be a hope.

The line that really stuck out for me was when one of the experts says that mankind would be plunged into despair if aliens do show up and then they leave.
I think this is connected to something deeply human and perhaps the whole thing why we do look to the stars and ponder if there is life out there. Because there is a very, in my mind, very interesting longing toward space and what's out there. I think it has to do with this hope or idea or longing towards being seen by something other. By being seen, also by something superior, you actually gain existence, because you're recognized as something. I think if somebody came here and left again without a word, more or less, without any [idea of] why they [came] and so on, I think, yes, that would plunge us into a collective depression, because we would get the idea that we were nothing. We weren't worth wasting more time on. It was just like they just stopped by on the road and there was nothing to see and then they just drove on in a way. Because that would give us a kind of inferiority complex, which we might already have.

At a recent panel discussion, a chief scientist at NASA said that we'll have strong indications of life beyond Earth within a decade, and definitive evidence within 20 to 30 years. But she emphasized that this evidence wouldn't be "little green men," but rather microbes. That would be a huge step toward finding life as we know it, but still, I feel that if that's all we found, it would really disappoint a lot of people.
In my mind, its a strange statement to make, because why talk about [it] not [being] "little green men"? I think the reason why it's being talked about this way is that—yes, it might be the case actually. Yes, yes, yes, I agree that, you know, you might find fossilized bacteria and so on or similar things on Mars and so on. But I think the reason why the talk is only about bacteria is also very much, perhaps even more, connected to the fact that it will be much, much more difficult to understand and to decide what to do if higher lifeforms were encountered. Not to mention, of course, lifeforms with life like us, because then it's a whole different ethical and moral question. Can we land on this planet? Let's say we could do that. Can we interfere, can we contaminate, potentially, this world? So, it's much, much more difficult moral and ethical questions. Questions that have nothing to do with science alone, meaning that NASA perhaps cannot decide for themselves how to cut the cake, or whatever you say in English. So, much more difficult questions will come into play.

The film covers everything from how to best issue a statement to the public to if we should reveal humanity's worst traits to aliens. The question that caught me most off guard though was "Who should be humanity's spokesperson?" It's funny because movies have taught me that it's always the U.S. president who handles space relations. But when Sir David Attenborough was suggested I just thought, Oh yes, of course. There are other possibilities! So lastly, who do you think would make a good spokesperson for humanity?
I think that in the present day world the only super-national entity is, of course, the United Nations. There is, of course, the opinion that the UN is bogged down in bureaucracy, but it's the only thing we have. It's also, of course, very possible that if this were to happen, if these entities think like we do, then they will approach the strongest power on earth, which would currently be the US because they would think that they're the best ones to negotiate with. Because if we can agree with them then everyone else will also most likely agree. But, if they address the cows, of course, it's a different scenario. But it can also be that, I don't know, perhaps if somebody comes it is so value-changing that humans start to think in a different way, I don't know. If we know that astronauts who have been in space and have seen the Earth, they seem to have some shifts in their perception of values and so on. I don't know.

But of course, most of these sci-fi scenarios are coming from Hollywood, and American self-understanding is to be superior, at least after the Second World War and so on. But I think that if you see Japanese films then perhaps its the Japanese military who takes care of things. So its also about perspectives.

The Visit plays at Hot Docs documentary film festival on April 29 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Regan Reid on Twitter.